Connecticut program to assess growth potential for shellfish industry

Work on a project to maximize commercial shellfish harvesting levels is getting underway at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus in Groton.

A $75,000 grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service will enable Connecticut Sea Grant to use geographic information system technology to show what parts of Long Island Sound can best support the growth of shellfish. Geopgraphic information system technology takes layers of information and data and converts them into maps and three dimensional scenes.

Work on the project is just getting underway. A report that identifies the best areas for shellfish bed restoration will be released in two years.

Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture extension specialist with Connecticut Sea Grant, said while there are shellfishing operations along the entire length of the state’s coast, the heaviest concentration is in the coastal area between New Haven and Westport. Currently, about 20 percent of Connecticut’s part of Long Island Sound already is designated for commercial or recreational shellfishing, mainly clams and oysters.

“This (project) will put restoration practitioners in a position to get their projects funded,” Getchis said. “We also want to provide funding agencies the confidence that they are funding high priority, state-supported efforts. We’re trying to make the best possible use of the Sound.”

The area from which shellfish are harvested from the Sound has increased slightly in recent years, she said, “but it is nowhere near historically high levels.”

Part of the reason for that increase is that shellfish companies are increasing using what Getchis calls “vertical methods,” where clams and oysters are grown in cages or bags that occupy the space between the surface of the Sound and the seabed.

The project being funded with the federal grant is being done in partnership with the state Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Aquaculture and the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. Getchis said officials with the state agencies and Connecticut Sea Grant hope municipal harbor management commissions, city planners, coastal engineers and representative of the state commercial shellfishing industry get involved in the project.

The state’s commercial shellfishing industry generates an estimated $30 million in revenue annually and is making a comeback. But Getchis said the goal of the project goes beyond maximizing shellfish industry revenues.

“Part of our goal is to be able to create unharvested shellfish beds because of the important ecosystem functions they perform,” she said.

Among those ecosystem functions are cleaning ocean water and helping to protect shoreline areas from waves cause by storm surges. Rebuilding historic shellfish beds also can help protect other marine creatures.

Harry Yamalis, an environmental analyst with DEEP, said rebuilding shellfish beds has been a goal of Long Island Sound restoration plans for more than a decade. Restoration projects have come from a mix of private and governmental groups, according to Yamalis.