Downpour dampens local oyster industry

Sage American Grill and Oyster Bar, overlooking the Long Island Sound, gets some of its oysters locally, but has had to look elsewhere.
Sage American Grill and Oyster Bar, overlooking the Long Island Sound, gets some of its oysters locally, but has had to look elsewhere. Photo by Esther Zuckerman.

Nearly year round, workers from Connecticut-based Norm Bloom and Son catch young oysters in the Long Island Sound by dropping a large collecting basket called a dredge off their boat, piling its deck full of the shellfish and taking them to Norwalk, where they will grow and eventually be sold. But this year, because of heavy rains that drenched New Haven last month, Norman Bloom, the company’s owner, had to lay off about half his crew.

“There’s work we can do, but no income,” he said.

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Oyster harvesting is a year-round operation, one that has faced a number of obstacles in New Haven over the last two centuries and has become a difficult industry to stay in. And the job recently got harder: The torrential rains in March, which led President Barack Obama to declare Friday that Connecticut is in a state in emergency, meant nearly a month of work lost. Because oysters and other shellfish are filter feeders that can absorb contaminants from the rain, the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture and Laboratory Services, located in Milford, ordered a stop to shellfish harvesting in the state.

“It’s been a devastating year for the oyster and clam industry,” said Leslie Miklovich, Bloom’s cousin and the vice president of Norwalk-based Hillard Bloom Shellfish Inc.

New Haven is one of the best places for oyster larvae to settle, said Norman’s brother Steven, who is the owner of his own seafood company, Norwalk-based K.B. Shellfish Inc. New Haven’s shallow waters are ideal for young oysters, said Gaboury Benoit ’76, professor of environmental engineering and faculty director of the Center for Coastal and Watershed Systems at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

They sell bluepoints, which are native to the Long Island Sound and are in high demand, Norman said, because they live in colder waters than Southern oysters do, and will therefore last longer under refrigeration.

Still, local restaurants recently have looked elsewhere. Dave McCoart, owner of Sage American Grill and Oyster Bar, which is located in New Haven by the Long Island Sound, said he often gets oysters from the same waters his restaurant overlooks but that he also gets oysters from New York and Boston. On Sunday, Sage, which has large windows that look onto boats in the harbor and the Long Island Sound’s calm waters, was serving oysters that were displayed nestled in a small glass container. Above its liquor bar, which is adjacent to the oyster bar, hangs a sign that reads Oyster Point, the name the neighborhood used to go by (it is now officially called the Hill).

New Haven and the oyster have a long, tumultuous history dating back to the 19th century. In the 1800s, there were a large number of oyster companies in the city. Most of the houses on South Water Street, where McCoart’s restaurant is located, have large basement doors because the oysters would be sorted there, McCoart said.

As the 20th century rolled around, the water became polluted (some oysters were even turning out green), and businesses had to move out of Connecticut, said David Carey, director of the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture and Laboratory Services. And starfish became a problem in the late ’60s because they would eat the oysters, leading to “devastating” drops in oyster population, Carey said. And in 1998, two diseases struck the population, which did not recover until 2004.

Despite the problems the oyster population has faced, including last month’s torrential rain, oyster business owners said they keep working. Miklovich added that even though buyers had to look elsewhere for shellfish in recent months, “they’ll come back.” Come July, when the water hits 70 degrees, the grown oysters will spawn, larvae will float and attach to shells that the harvesters have planted, Miklovich said.

“We’re underwater farmers,” Miklovich said. “It’s hard work.”

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