Shellfishing Article

March 27, 2017

Beneath the rolling waters surrounding the Thimble Islands lie 900 acres of shellfish beds that state officials want to use to expand Connecticut's ancient oyster and clam industry. Jonathan Waters thinks he can help.

Waters, 65, spent a quarter-century making a living on Long Island Sound, much of the time harvesting shellfish from the grounds off Branford's Stony Creek. Waters is planning on becoming a mentor to new shellfishing operators who will be leasing some of those Thimble Island beds under the state's new program.

"It's a great place for shellfish," Waters said one recent morning at his dock on the Branford shoreline. A burly, gray-bearded man, Waters is semi-retired but still has the look of a quintessential New England fisherman. He was taking a break from putting together a boat he hopes to use to show newcomers the best techniques for raising and harvesting oysters and clams.

"I'm sort of excited about the prospects," Waters said of the new state program. "Shellfishing has such a history here. … We really need to have this activity here in order to preserve it."

Those shellfishing grounds, while held in trust under the state's authority, were granted to Branford's Town Shellfish Commission by an 1855 law. The commission then granted those shellfishing rights to individuals, who had the right to transfer or sell the rights to others. State officials bought the rights to those Thimble Island beds to use as "an aquaculture incubator area."

Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said the state's plan is to lease out plots of about 5 acres to individuals interested in trying to get into — or back into — shellfishing. "It's pretty exciting," Reviczky said of the effort to "cultivate new, beginning and small shellfishing operations in Connecticut."

Reviczky said he believes the new program "will be good for aquaculture, and good for that area of the state."

The state leases about 70,000 acres of shellfish grounds to private operators in Connecticut waters. Officials say the state's industry is dominated by a few major companies, and state aquaculture experts have been hoping to bring new people into what they believe can be a growing economic resource.

Bren Smith is a new generation "ocean farmer" who is raising shellfish and kelp on grounds he leases from the state just outside the Thimbles. "This program is exactly where we need to go to grow our industry," Smith said.

Waters said the 900 acres the state has the rights to around the Thimble Islands were originally shellfishing grounds for Native Americans, and have been worked by European colonists and their descendents for centuries. There are still some beds around the islands that are being leased by the town of Branford.

Smith and Waters say those local shellfish beds have some unique advantages. One of the most important is that the islands provide protection from all but the biggest storms and hurricanes that can hit the Sound.

"The water quality is good," added Waters. He said the flow from two creeks and marsh areas that empty into the area around the islands provide an ideal balance between salt and fresh water.

Kim Granbery is a retired 67-year-old former fisherman who once worked with Waters on shellfishing boats around the Thimbles. A Guilford resident, Granbery is also seeking to take part in the state's new program to help Waters preserve the area's long tradition of cultivating and harvesting oysters and clams.

"We hope to use [experienced shellfishermen like Waters, Smith and Granbery] as mentors," said David Carey, head of the state's Bureau of Aquaculture, "and that will reduce the expenditures of newcomers by helping them avoid mistakes."

Waters said simply aiding would-be shellfishermen with the complicated state and local leasing and licensing procedures will save them lots of time and frustration.

Granbery grew up in the area and believes there is something special about the combination of the waters and muddy bottom around the Thimbles that make shellfish grown there different and better than those from anywhere else. "I love oysters from all over," Granbery said, "but the richness of oysters in our area is quite unique."

When Waters and Granbery talk about what they'd like to see come out of this new state program, their conversation often turns to getting young people involved and explaining what shellfishing is really about.

"I'd like to see a generational continuum in the Thimble Islands in the Thimble Islands that involves locals," Granbery said.

"It's a vital part of this community," said Waters. "But part of this business over the years has been to educate people. … A lot of people don't really understand what we do."

"It's shellfish farming. … We're taking, but we're also putting back," Waters said of how oyster and clam beds need to be cultivated, the shellfish needing to be raised and cared for just as a farmer on land raises crops and animals for harvest.

"Fishermen end up being stewards of this area," Waters said as he stood in the make-shift shed protecting the 30-foot boat he expects to show shellfishing newcomers the best ways to raise and harvest oysters and clams.

The sturdy wooden hull Waters is working on was found partially completed in a barn in Maryland. Waters bought it, had it shipped to Branford, and is in the process of installing and fiber-glassing a deck, a wheelhouse, motor and shaft.

"I'm hoping it's going to be ready around the Fourth of July," he said with a wry smile. "We'll see. It could happen."