Oystering on Gulf Pond

Two residents concerned about an uptick in commercial oyster activity on Gulf Pond asked Milford aldermen this month to step in and curtail the business, which they said is encroaching on their neighborhood, driving the birds away and stirring up silt.

The residents, who spoke at the October Board of Aldermen’s meeting, said that since oyster boats and oyster fishermen returned in the past two years, the pond’s ecosystem is changing — the snowy egrets have disappeared, and in addition to the silt, the shellfishermen are stirring up things long buried on the bottom of the pond.

“I’m tired of having my property invaded,” said Alice Oliver, who told the aldermen that the boats come very close to her property.

“It’s like the Wild West now,” resident Janet James said.

They asked for more regulations, such as limiting the distance commercial oystermen may work from private property and more oversight of the number of commercial enterprises allowed in the pond.
Milford’s oyster history
Oystering is a big part of Milford’s identity, so big that there is an annual festival named for it — the annual Milford Oyster Festival, and a river, the Oyster River, that runs through here. The industry is mentioned in city history books, and even has its own tome, a booklet called “Oystering in Milford, A Brief History.”

While oystering was curtailed at Gulf Pond for a period of time because of water quality, fetching oysters from those waters is just as much part of city history as oysters themselves.

History of Milford Connecticut reminds residents that oysters played a part in this community long before Milford became Milford, and that “a long narrow peninsula at the extreme west, now Milford Point, had been for many years the site of a large Indian village and the scene of many an Indian oyster fest. The shells were scattered thickly over nearly twenty-four acres.”
According to Oystering in Milford, A Brief History, oystering developed as an industry in Milford around 1752, when “50 oystermen lived through the winter at Milford Point in small huts banked with seaweed.”
Over the years various laws were created to address oyster gathering, some limiting the number of oysters that could be removed from local waters and others setting fines for taking oysters out of season.

In 1857, oystering became a major industry here, the booklet states. At that time, William M. Merwin experimented with planting oysters in Gulf Pond. He didn’t have much luck in the pond, but he didn’t give up, eventually finding success in deeper water and launching his own shellfish company.

“In the 1800s attempts to cultivate by laying cultch [the stones, broken shells and grit of which an oyster bed is formed] was perfected along the Connecticut coastline,” the book notes. “From then on, Milford developed into a leading oystering location.”

Today, the shellfish industry helps feed Connecticut’s economy. There are 44 licensed shellfish harvesters in Connecticut and 110 shellfish harvesting vessels. The Connecticut shellfishing industry provides more than 300 jobs statewide; annually Connecticut shellfish harvests exceed 450,000 bushels of hard clams and 200,000 of bushels of oysters.

“More than 70,000 acres of shellfish farms are now under cultivation in Connecticut’s coastal waters,” according to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s website.

Over the years, the oysters from Gulf Pond have helped seed some of those shellfish farms.

According to David H. Carey, director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Aquaculture, Gulf Pond existed as a commercial oyster bed until about 1915, when a local Milford oysterman retired. The Milford Shellfish Commission then designated the pond as a natural oyster seed bed for all the public to gather seed.

“The pond has operated as such since then,” said Carey. “The pond was an intensive commercial oyster operation from the 1860s to 1915 and then a public seedbed since; nothing has dramatically changed.”

Ben Goetsch from Briarpatch Enterprises said Briarpatch has been working the pond for 30 to 35 years. He explained that 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, and Goetsch said that classification came about largely because of evolving science that allowed for more precise water testing.

According to the Department of Agriculture, a “prohibited” area is one that is essentially closed for the harvesting of shellfish, but it does allow for the 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, Carey said.

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.

“These shellfish may not be directly harvested for market or consumed prior to a minimum purification period of 14 consecutive days after being relayed to approved or conditionally approved ‘open’ areas with a water temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit or greater,” according to the Department of Agriculture website.

Carey credits Milford infrastructure improvements for improved water quality in the pond, and he said that with the reclassification, oystermen returned to Gulf Pond. There have been up to six different companies working in Gulf Pond since 2015, he said. Most of the work is done from small skiffs or flat boat vessels, and the oystering may be done only between sunrise and sunset. Only oysters may be removed. The seed oystering season opens on Sept. 21 and continues to July 20. The closed period allows spawning oysters to settle on shell, Carey said.
Not everyone is unhappy that the oyster boats and oystermen have returned.

One woman who lives on the pond wrote to The Milford Mirror last Thanksgiving, sending a photo and expressing her pleasure that the oystermen were back.

“I think it’s nice because when we first moved here 10 years ago, there still were ‘No Shellfishing’ signs up on the street,” the resident wrote. “Now it appears the pond can support a small shellfish enterprise.”

Mayor Ben Blake grew up on Gulf Pond, and he said he remembers shellfishermen on those waters for many years.

He said there haven’t been many complaints coming into City Hall, though he did hear the two residents address the aldermen about their concerns and he is aware that there was a letter circulated to other Gulf Pond area residents about those concerns.

“In Milford,” Blake said, “we have oysters.”

Alderman Frank Smith said he isn’t sure yet what, if anything, will be done regarding the residents’ complaints to the board earlier this month. He said Alderman Bryan Anderson, who represents that district, is investigating the matter.

Smith said the aldermen will have to understand the laws regarding the industry and the pond.

According to Ben Goetsch at Briarpatch, while other communities oversee their own shellfish beds, Milford gave up that jurisdiction to the state in 1913. Carey said oversight of the pond and Milford Harbor administratively remain with the city, but the Department of Agriculture’s Aquaculture Bureau manages the shellfish licenses.

“The pond was designated a natural oyster public bed by the Milford Town Shellfish Commission in 1918, and the department operates under that designation and issues licenses enabling the public to work the pond,” Carey said.

Anderson said the first step in addressing the complaints he’s heard will be to talk to the mayor and the city attorney about whether a new commission or panel should be created to oversee shellfishing in Milford waters. Anderson said that by default, those issues are now directed to the Board of Aldermen.