Sea Worthy

The water was bright and the chains were clanking as Pat O’Neil brought the boat around to haul up another load of oysters. We were out in Long Island Sound, not far from the Norwalk Islands. The famous old striped lighthouse was so close you could skip a stone to it. The sea was calm, the breezes light, and from that vantage point the entire world seemed crisp and clean.

From his stance in the wheelhouse, Captain O’Neil pulled a lever and a four-foot-wide dredging basket at the end of a cable plunged into the water and dropped to the Sound floor. When he brought it back up, white streams of water swept out of the chain-link basket and he deposited the load of oysters on the deck. The glistening pile was getting to be close to seven feet high. The occasional crab scuttled around it in confusion.

Of that pile, however, only a third of it was actually oysters. Back at the dock in Norwalk the haul would be unloaded and sorted out by hand, and the remaining shells and effluvia would be brought back out on the next boat. Once they were out over the designated area, the old shells would be hosed off the deck and scattered over the beds. Freshly spawned baby oysters need a hard surface to attach themselves; this wealth of old shells creates a happy place to grow.

The oystermen started at sun-up. They perform this routine six days a week, even in winter unless the temperature drops down to 10° F and they can’t wrap the crates of oysters fast enough.

After all these years of living near the Sound and watching the occasional trawler ply the waters, I’d never known what real exertions went into actually harvesting shellfish. For me, the business end of the profession was to be seen in my spoon at my favorite clam house. I had no idea that the oystermen are actually farmers, tending to crops, moving oysters from this location to that to help them grow. Before a three-year-old oyster gets to market, it will have been moved around four times.

In brief, hard work.

O’Neil tugs at the wheel and nods. “People don’t know how hard the work is,” he agreed. Oystermen regard their boats as tractors and the dredge as their rake.

Standing behind him is Jim Bloom, twenty-seven, a.k.a. “the son” in the company name, Norm Bloom and Son. He knew from the age of six when he first went out on a boat that he wanted to be an oysterman. He is the third generation in his family to work these beds, which originated in 1875 as a business run by the Tallmadge Brothers. “We’re farming,” he says simply, as he explains the care and feeding that goes into “oyster husbandry.” His beds run from New Haven to Greenwich.

The Blooms, like many others in the business, are only too glad to explain their trade. They give space in their dockside building to Harbor Watch, an environmental group run by Earthplace in Westport, and flocks of kids are waltzed through every day. The kids serve as additional watchdogs on the water.

This open embrace of outsiders is all kinds of funny, on one level, as the shellfish business was, in days of yore, a practice wrapped in deep secrecy. Fishermen were fiercely protective of their techniques and inside knowledge. (“Clammed up” you might say.) In the old vendettas, the decks might even have run red.

But now, it is understood by everyone that it’s necessary to be an evangelist about it all. The general public is awash in misconceptions. Some folks still think it’s 1960, when you wouldn’t dare touch an oyster from the Sound. Well, you couldn’t even find one.

The Little Shellfish that Could

The Bruce Museum intends to change the public’s bevy of misconceptions with a forthcoming exhibition, “Oysters, Pearls of the Long Island Sound,” which runs from November to March. The Bloom family and many other local shellfish operators are contributing antiques and memorabilia, not to mention the occasional sackful of their best oysters. The many discussions and lectures will even include a talk on wine pairings.

“Connecticut has the oldest oyster history in North America,” says Gina Gould, the Bruce’s former curator of science. She hopes the exhibit will show how immense the oyster business was.

“When Henry Hudson came to America 400 years ago, all he wrote about were the oysters. They were getting massive oysters from the Gowanus River—sometimes twelve inches across. Can you imagine the chowder one of those would make?”

The oyster is an extraordinary little environmental engine. Alas, it is also somewhat misunderstood. Each little oyster filters fifty gallons of water a day, removing nitrogen and other harmfuls from the sea and making our marine ecosystem a better place. Indeed, anyone standing on a wall in Greenwich Cove, admiring the clarity of the water, bucket in hand, can thank those millions of oysters out there, keeping things clean and tidy and, by the way, remaining the tastiest shellfish produced anywhere around the North American continent.

Even a century ago, oysters were as common on Connecticut dinner tables as pizzas are today. “In its heyday, people sold oysters in gallon jugs,” Gina marvels. It was a daily source of protein for the working stiff, and it was a chilled delicacy served at the swank Manhattan joints like Lüchow’s and Longchamps.

The oyster’s distinction as a marvelous delicacy was not hindered at all by its reputation as an aphrodisiac. Casanova, the famed Italian lover and spy, was known to order up sixty every day for breakfast.

The status of all local seafood took a serious hit in the 1950s, however, as industry and power plants combined to pollute the Sound. The oysters, weakened and susceptible to viruses, simply died off. “All the oyster beds in Greenwich were closed by 1960,” Gina says. “When the revival started in the 1990s, it was because of volunteers, people like Lucy Jinishian.”

In the 1980s, it was Lucy Jinishian and her fellow volunteers who successfully fought Connecticut Light & Power’s plan to build an 800-megawatt power plant in Stamford, a proposal that would have included an oil-loading dock on Old Greenwich’s beach. A Stamford project for dumping garbage in the Sound was also stopped.

The return of oystering began in earnest in 1986, when Lucy became chairman of the Greenwich Shellfish Commission. Volunteers fanned out across the troubled waters in search of the pollution. Miscreants were warned. Bacteria levels dropped.

“We have people running all over, checking for broken pipes, fertilizers, sewage,” says Roger Bowgen, the current chairman, speaking of his group of “eighteen happy volunteers.” Their findings are reported to the Department of Health and the Bureau of Aquaculture & Laboratory Services in Milford.

“When it was deemed safe to open the shellfish beds again,” Bowgen says, “we bartered some clams for sacks of baby oysters. We hung them in mesh bags at Greenwich Point until they got to the size of your thumbnail.”

Broken-up oyster shells were scattered in various seabeds and were seeded with the baby oysters. “And they did indeed take in some areas. You need movement of water. And five years ago we discovered some natural oysters had survived. The cove could be opened for recreation. Now they’re growing right around the point. The oysters are healthy; the clams are healthy.”

There are limits, of course, to an oyster’s imperviousness. “After Hurricane Sandy,” says Bowgen, “you could have walked along Greenwich Point and picked oysters off trees.”

An oyster needs three years to get to market size. Thus, the havoc wrought by 2011’s Hurricane Irene might make for a thin crop in 2014.

Lawn fertilizer runoff is still an issue; many authorities believe it has been harming the lobster industry. Last August the Connecticut Department of Agriculture ordered that shellfish harvested from certain beds in Norwalk and Westport be taken off the market for a period of testing. “It’s rare for us,” reports Norm Bloom. “In fact, it’s the first time. But we’ll do everything we can. We move over to other beds, like up at Quinnipiac.” Controlling 12,000 acres of oyster beds gives them room to maneuver.

Meanwhile, the crops of oysters, which grow an inch a year, are now so thick that folks walking on the beach are aware of the shells.

“Bear in mind we planted two million oysters,” notes Bowgen. “And the clams also filter the water. It’s said that the Greenwich Cove is filtered twice a day.”

A $15 license allows recreational users to nab oysters in the Greenwich waters between October and May. Bowgen thinks it’s critical to get children away from their TVs and iPads. “Let them get out in the sand and dig and touch it, and come up with an experience that they can pass down to their kids. These days, the only way you can get through to adults is through their kids. And we’ve got to do it, otherwise we’re going to lose this part of nature.

“Education is so important, and that’s why the Bruce Museum show means a lot.”

Farmers of the Sea

Among the many misconceptions faced by people in the shellfish industry is that the guys on the boats are just about take, take, take. Ed Stilwagen hears it all the time.

Stilwagen, known as Captain Clam, is one of the more interesting characters plying the waters. A former marine engineer, he quit the white-collar world in 1971 in order to work the sea. Clams, specifically. “I have a motto,” he grins. “Oysters are fun, but clams will keep you.”

While oysters grow on the seafloor surface, clams burrow down. On the prow of his sixty-five-foot-long clam boat berthed in Byram River is a lengthy clam-dredging device of his own invention. When he works the 3,000 acres he leases out in the Sound, the dredge gently blows through the seafloor mud, lifts the clams and deposits them on a conveyor belt, and allows the baby clams to return to their beds and grow.

Operators of the old-fashioned tow dredges usually have to wait three or four years between harvests, to allow time for replenishment. With his gentler invention, Stilwagen can work a clam bed regularly.

For this and his other inventions, Stilwagen’s firm has been called “the greenest, most sustainable” in the Sound, says Gina Gould.

Like most of the folks in the shellfish trade, he is used to having pleasure boats drift close and even bump into him. A few weeks ago he noticed a large vessel cruise past. The captain, having lunch on his deck, looked down and sneered loudly to his guests: “Those guys take everything off the bottom. There are no clams left.” Stilwagen heard it and shook his head. “It couldn’t have been further from the truth,” he says.

Like Jim Bloom, he regards himself as a farmer of the sea. He throws down seeds; he raises crops. He gestures to the 150 bushels of fresh clams on his dock, sorted, bagged and ready to go to market. There’d be another stack there tomorrow. And down that river was a Long Island Sound that was just getting clearer by the day, with no small thanks going to his sturdy friends, the shellfish.

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