Local oystermen spend day cleaning pond

Instead of heading into the Sound Friday morning to gather oysters, employees of Briarpatch Enterprises, plus some volunteers, picked trash out of Gulf Pond and the surrounding area to highlight the importance of shellfishing in the region and the need to protect shellfish habitat.

They pulled out cans, bottles, plastic bags, wood, and among other things — two bowling balls. There was enough after about four hours of scouring to fill a large dumpster.

Briarpatch owner Joe Gilbert said the event was meant to highlight the shellfish industry’s commitment to environmental stewardship and its role as a civic partner in communities like Milford.

Gulf Pond, as well as Gulf Beach and the Indian River, are places where people go for recreation. The pond is also part of Briarpatch’s livelihood, providing some of the oyster seeds that the shellfishermen relocate into waters where they can grow and become marketable.

Cleanup efforts took place on land and over water and included the intertidal zone, beach and parking areas, all of which have accumulated trash, flotsam, and debris from heavy use and human traffic, according to a company announcement about the cleanup.

In addition to being a popular spot for canoeing, kayaking and recreational fishing, Gulf Pond is used as a natural oyster seed bed for the public to gather seed.

Briarpatch Enterprises has been working the pond for 30 to 35 years. The oysters there may not be taken for direct consumption; rather, they may be collected and transported to other areas where they become “seed” to grow into larger oysters that can be harvested, sold and then eaten.

The pond had been classified as “prohibited” for a number of years, largely because of evolving science that allowed for more precise water testing, Ben Goetsch from Briarpatch explained recently.

A “prohibited” area is one that is essentially closed for the harvesting of shellfish, but it does allow for conditional removal of oysters two inches and smaller, which must then be transplanted to another location for a minimum of six months. The classification is typically due to “direct exposure to fecal, industrial or environmental contamination to the extent that the consumption of shellfish harvested in the area may be potentially hazardous to health.”

The “prohibited” classification did limit the amount of work in the pond, but commercial oystering never stopped completely.

In November 2015, the pond’s classification was changed from “prohibited” to “restricted relay,” meaning the oysters could be removed and taken to different areas as seed, thus increasing commercial activity in the pond.

Briarpatch saw the pond and surrounding area as a natural place to focus an Earth Day cleanup. Although Earth Day is officially April 22, the company thought it made more sense to clean this past weekend, when growing foliage wasn’t still hiding the debris.

Local officials stopped by Friday morning to pitch in on the cleanup, including Alderman Bryan Anderson, state Reps. Pam Staneski and Kim Rose, and Probate Judge Beverly Streit-Kefalas.