Group says new state lease agreements threaten long-time shellfishermen

The Coalition of Connecticut Shellfishers, backed by state and local representatives, protested changes to their leases at a press conference Wednesday morning at the Milford Aquaculture Center on Rogers Avenue.

The Connecticut Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Aquaculture leases land at the bottom of Long Island Sound to companies that seed the beds with oysters and clams that are later harvested and sold.

According to a press release from the coalition, starting in June 2014, the Bureau of Aquaculture issued new terms and conditions to leases with shellfish companies. Under the new provisions, the department can terminate a lease on 30 days' written notice with or without reason.

The shellfishers stated that leases had previously been for three-year periods, and, in prior years, renewed virtually automatically. They said they operate in a similar manner to farmers because they both grow their own crops.

If a lease is terminated, the new provisions give the shellfishermen 30 days to remove the shellfish. They said it could take six months or more to move the shellfish to a new leased shellfish bed.

Former Milford State Rep. James Amann spoke on behalf of the coalition at the press conference and called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to intervene on behalf of the shellfishermen. State Rep. Kim Rose (D-118) also expressed her support for the group.

State Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg (D-14) characterized the shellfishermen as “a very vital part of our economy,” commenting, “We should be working with the industry and not against them.”

Slossberg characterized the change as unilateral on the part of the Department of Agriculture, saying the new leases “ask them to put themselves at the mercy of an agency.” She said, “There are ways to update them [the leases] that doesn't affect the livelihood of these people.”

According to Slossberg, the shellfishermen are being told they have to sign these new leases, or lose the land they have worked for generations.

“They are being told to sign it, or walk away from your life's business,” said Slossberg.

Slossberg said if the shellfishermen violate any law, they could immediately lose their lease, at the discretion of the Bureau of Agriculture, with no right to a hearing.

Mayor Ben Blake (D) said he talked recently with the governor's chief of staff to share his concerns with the lease changes.

“This is an industry steeped in tradition. They have generations of institutional knowledge,” said Blake.

State Rep. Paul Davis (D-117) said the Department of Agriculture proposed these changes in legislation introduced in the 2014 session. Davis said the bill died on the state senate calendar, but the department moved ahead with the changes on its own.

“State agencies are given a broad range of powers to regulate industries,” said Davis. “It seems that somebody has gotten a little carried away here.” Davis said the department should meet with the shellfishermen to hear their side of the issue.

Joseph Gilbert, owner of Empire Fisheries of Milford, said he has called on Malloy to intervene in the issue, saying the changes cause instability and insecurity in the industry.

Ed Stillwagon of Easton, owner of Atlantic Clam Farms of Connecticut, said he has been working in the industry since 1970, and, at age 77, is looking to sell his business. Stillwagon said he has spent millions of dollars on his business.

“I had a buyer and when he saw the new lease language, he backed out,” said Stillwagon. “I am extremely angry at the department for their dictatorial process.”

Stillwagon said he believes the agency has an agenda to “take away our leases and redistribute them.” He said there are 30,000 leased acres in the Sound and another 200,000 available for lease.

“If someone wants to get into the business, let them work the ground like we did,” said Stillwagon.

Jim Salce of Nutmeg Shellfishing said his family has been oystering since 1930. One of Salce's concerns is that if the lease is not paid within 10 days, the holder could lose it. Further, he said if people have trouble paying some of their leases, they could lose them all.

Salce said the state would previously allow 60 days to pay a lease, in part because harvests may vary in this seasonal business. Salce said when the oysters were wiped out in past years, it took 10 years for them to return to their same level.

“The state should help the guys they lease their land to,” said Salce.

Norm Bloom of Norm Bloom and Son of Norwalk, which harvests oysters, clams and lobsters since the 1940s, said, “We create jobs” and said investing back into the land is part of the business.

“I think this industry is in real trouble with this,” said Bloom.

Attorney Neil Ruben, who represents Bloom, said, “Gov. Malloy talks about being a job creator, but this is destroying jobs.” Ruben said the state Office of Counsel did not support the shellfishermen's position.

“We were told straight up to take it or leave it,” said Ruben. “We don't want special treatment. We want fair treatment from the governor.”

Agriculture Position

Following the press conference, the department distributed a press release outlining the reasons for the changes. In the press release Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky stated the policy is designed to enhance opportunities for small businesses, ensure public policy, and protect taxpayers' investments.

“These updates are part of our ongoing effort to grow the industry, while maintaining a fair playing field for all,” Reviczky said in the press release. “With this new shellfish modernization effort in place, we can give more of our hardworking, family-owned small businesses the chance to succeed and create jobs.”

According to Reviczky, the updates are intended to achieve four goals: Modernize the state's shellfish bed management through lease revision, and also reduce incidences of vibrio, a naturally-occurring warm water bacteria. The other goals are to maintain a competitive business environment for small businesses, while protecting taxpayers' investments, and provide transparency in agency policy.

According to Reviczky, the department cannot cancel a lease at will without cause, and said anyone with a terminated lease would have 30 days to remove his or her property from the grounds, including any shellfish planted and cultivated.

“There is a small subset of the industry resisting these necessary changes, but the majority of the licensed oyster companies are not represented by this coalition,” said Reviczky in the press release, noting that the leases had remained largely unchanged since 1915.

In testimony before the Environment Committee on Feb. 19, 2014, Reviczky described a situation in which a shellfish company had not paid for a lease, and was still able to compete against other companies that were paying their leases.

“I think that a Commissioner of Agriculture would always be reasonable in considering extenuating circumstances,” Reviczky  told the committee. “We work with people all the time to get the payments. And in this case, we just simply couldn't do that.”

Rather than pay the lease, Reviczky said the company chose to fight the state in court. He told the committee that the changes would allow the department to terminate all leases, even if only some were not being paid.

“It would strengthen the state's hand to collect what was due,” Reviczky told the committee.