Oysters are more than just aphrodisiacs in Connecticut’s waters

I spent spring break in New Haven, sleeping and hot-potting my way through what — after three years of breaks here — has become a personal tradition of quality time in a Yalie-free Elm City. New Haven’s revenge on tax-ducking, town-gown-relation-straining Yale is to save the fun stuff for when we’re not here. You’ve probably never witnessed the phenomenon of Chuck-a-Puck at a Knights game or seen 100,000 people reel down Chapel Street, open-containers in hand, for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. There’s a lot that happens here that we never know about.

Case in point? The oyster industry. A large portion of it is centered in our harbor. (Yes, freshmen, we do live on the coast. I swear.) As it turns out, Connecticut is the nation’s second-largest producer of these mud-covered aphrodisiacs.

Friends know me to be an avowed non-eater of anything capable of breathing underwater. Conflate that with my identity as a Yale student who is fairly convinced this city is just a tiny six-block area anchored by Blockbuster and Main Garden, and I should be duly predisposed to disinterest in the fate of some bottom-feeding little clam-cousins in New Haven harbor. But a recent turn of events (and a curiosity to see if I can devote an entire column to bivalve mollusks) changed my attitude about these shell-clad underdogs.

Except for the off-chance you took back-issues of the Hartford Courant and New Haven Register to Florida as light beach reading, you probably haven’t heard about a recent controversy that has been simmering in Connecticut over the fate of oysters and power. TransEnergie, part of Hydro-Quebec (a Canadian power company), is currently negotiating with the State of Connecticut to sink power cables in Long Island Sound. The cables will be laid between the New Haven harbor and Brookhaven, N.Y., as part of a $125 million project to supply power to Long Island.

A big ol’ piece of underwater wire doesn’t seem capable of causing controversy — unless you’re one of the 400 people employed by Connecticut’s oyster industry, which brings in $60 million dollars per year in revenue. They’re more worried than a pre-frosh the day before April 1 and with good reason. To install the cable, TransEnergie would create a ditch by blasting the harbor-floor with a high-pressure spray of water. It would disrupt fragile shellfish beds only recently restored by environmental initiatives, potentially retarding — if not destroying — the rejuvenated shellfishing industry.

Approval of the plan rests on the March 28 vote of the Connecticut Siting Council, which consists of nine members charged with the duty of balancing the interests of consumers with the protection of the environment. They’ll have to contend with the people at the Soundkeeper’s Office, under the direction of Rep. Terry Backer, and the state Department of Agriculture — both of which have muted their initial opposition to the plan after TransEnergie offered each a million dollar donation to support oystering.

It’s troubling that the Soundkeeper dignified the mere proposal of the plan by not immediately denouncing what has been dubbed a virtual bribe. Agencies responsible for cultivating shellfishing were ready to sacrifice a $60 million dollar industry in exchange for a paltry million bucks that TransEnergie grudgingly laid on the table when the deal met its first criticisms.

That state agencies would even consider selling out the very industries that distinguish Connecticut as more than just a suburb of Manhattan should anger the public. Outrage is a more appropriate response, given the potential that our state’s environment could be compromised — by a foreign corporation, no less — for the sake of keeping Long Island’s hair dryers running at full speed.

Eventually the beds will recover. Yes, the canuck cablers promise that fishermen would receive “undisclosed amounts as compensation.” If an informal poll of the Siting Council last week is an accurate forecast of their upcoming vote, the plan will be rejected. So why get bother getting worked up about oysters?

Modern life demands we accept the occasional trade of a forest for a road or a riverfront for a floodwall. Money has always played a more significant role in lobbying than the voices of citizens, and it would be naive or optimistic to argue otherwise. But the Soundkeeper’s Office and the Department of Agriculture aren’t contemplating a trade — they’re considering taking $2 million dollars, holding it over their mouths and sitting silently while Long Island snags a few volts at the expense of Connecticut citizens.

If the Siting Council acts according to its mission, there won’t be an undersea cable in our harbor, but more importantly, we can become a model of preservation — of our environment and cultural heritage. In the face of all-powerful modern corporatism, this is Connecticut’s chance to show that a little bit of money doesn’t make the world your oyster.



Sarah Merriman is a junior in Pierson College. Her columns appear on alternate Thursdays.

Comments