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How Oil Could Spoil the State's Fishing Rebound

As Connecticut's fishing industry tries to rebound from overfishing and pollution, the Gulf oil spill threatens.

If Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a book on Connecticut fishing, the title might have been "The Case of the Obsolete Oyster."

Over time, pollution coupled with overfishing has devastated Connecticut's fishing industry. Yet recently the tide has turned; the numbers of oysters and clams harvested are slowly rebounding.

Both an increased demand for local product, and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico provide the impetus for growth. Still, changing people's perceptions about Connecticut shellfish is hard.

"It's been a struggle to overcome the bias Connecticut residents have that the Sound is dirty," said David Carey, Director of the Bureau of Aquaculture for the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. "But the Long Island Sound of today isn't the same body of water it was in the 70s."

Today there are more than 70,000 acres of shellfish farms under cultivation, said Carey. Local municipal shellfish commissions lease about 12,000 acres to shell fishermen. The revenue from those leases equals about $1 million in annual revenue for the state, said Carey.

He added that the implementation of statutes such as the Clean Water Act drastically improved waterways. The Housatonic and Quinnipiac Rivers no longer "change colors by day," he said.  In turn, clam and oyster populations have grown.

"The oysters have started to come back. We're just hoping the oil spill stays put. There are no signs of it coming here, but you never know," said Noreen Salce of Fairfield-based Nutmeg Shellfish Farm.

Today when Wiltonians order oysters or pick up flounder at the market, it likely comes from out of state. So when the state legislature reconvenes in January some local politicians might raise the issue.

"We need to reignite Connecticut's fishing industry," said state Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26). "With so much attention on homegrown vegetables, on things grown locally, we could see the same for clams and lobsters."

It's an issue on which both sides of the aisle appear to agree.

"I think it would be a good to invigorate the fishing industry in Connecticut. We have a long history of oysters in Norwalk," said state Rep. Peggy Reeves (D-Wilton, Norwalk).

Past pollution hurt wild oyster stocks in Norwalk as well as lobsters and other fish throughout the Sound. Pesticides also killed off cod, stripers, skate and bluefish that once filled the waters. Metals and sludge dumped into the Norwalk River decades ago still affect the water.

Other aquatic animals also declined, including pipefish, winter flounder and sea robins. In 2005 about 256 flounder were caught in Norwalk, according to Connecticut Department of Agriculture. That number plummeted to 15 in 2008, but slightly rebounded to 46 in 2009.

In addition, slowly rising sea temperatures have cooked lobster populations that thrive on cold-water, according to a report by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Truly wild oysters are a thing of the past in part because the creeks that once fed into the sound are gone. Without those creeks, healthy oyster reefs died, said Steve Malinowski of Fisher Island Oyster Farm in Fisher Island, New York.

Though Malinowski doesn't farm in Connecticut, his 30 years of experience provides perspective. He practices sustainable shellfish farming and sees that as a way to reinvigorate a flagging industry.

Malinowski said two things have caused shellfish to virtually disappear from Long Island Sound – water quality and overfishing.

"Few people in the industry acknowledge that and took out way more than nature could put back in," Malinowski said, adding that it takes four to five years for oysters to mature in the wild versus about 18 months on a farm.

Bringing back the fishing industry will likely rely on sustainable farming.

"Everything we fish we put into the water. It's completely sustainable, so there's no threat of over-harvesting," said Malinowski.

Tallmadge Co. and other smaller Connecticut oyster farmers use seed produced in New Haven and Bridgeport. Today Tallmadge boasts a fleet of 25 vessels and, like other oystermen, harvests from natural beds leased and maintained by the State of Connecticut.

Although oysters may be up, lobsters have continued to lag. One reason is they aren't farmed. While some say increased regulation dented their business, others said overfishing hurt healthy hauls.

Fishing pressure continues to reduce lobster stock in Southern New England, even "though over fishing is currently not occurring…total trap hauls have declined significantly yet have not declined at the same rate as lobster abundance," according to ASMFC.

"There is a real crisis with the lobster population in Connecticut," said Reeves. "And I know they're talking about limiting the fishing."

Reeves referred to ASMFC's might impose a five-year moratorium on lobster fishing off the Atlantic Coast from Cape Cod south.

"I know some of the lobster fishermen are upset about that, but if you look at it for the long term it's better," Reeves said.

In the 1990s about 35 million lobsters crawled along the sandy bottom of the sound. Now there are about 15 million lobsters. And, in 1998, Connecticut lobstermen harvested about 3.7 million pounds, compared with 431,000 pounds in 2009, according to the report.

"We must protect the sound, it is a scarce environmental asset we have to protect," Boucher said.

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