Connecticut’s oystermen seek help after Irene – Coeur d’Alene Press: National News

The damaged docks and scattered oysters left after TropicalStorm Irene tore through Long Island Sound this summer reveal onlysome of the problems Connecticut oystermen face in trying torebuild their industry along the Mystic River.

They worry a shutdown of more than a month will result in apermanent loss of customers and express irritation over what theyconsider a slow process to get permits for winter harvesting fromthe river and growing oysters in indoor tanks to extend theirseason. There’s also some frustration at being regulated likefishermen when they consider themselves “growers,” akin to farmersand in need of the same kinds of government aid.

Oystermen plant small shellfish in beds to grow and later beharvested. like farmers, each has his own territory in which toplant.

James Markow, 55, estimated he lost $35,000, or about 20 percentof his annual sales, when he had to close operations for five weeksbefore, during and after the storm. the extended shutdown resultedfrom persistent rain that started even before Irene reached thesound, creating runoff and the threat of pollution.

“We’ve had just a flurry of things that have gone on to keep usclosed,” Markow said. “The economic hardship is really tough. It’snot an easy business. an event like this is going to wipe peopleout.”

Shellfishing, a traditional industry in new England, had largelydied out in southeastern Connecticut when a few oystermen beganworking to revive it about 15 years ago. the industry now addsabout $30 million to the state’s economy each year and supportsmore than 300 jobs, according to a recent disaster aid request fromthe state’s congressional delegation.

The federal government has been looking to foster the domesticseafood industry. More than four-fifths of the fish, clams, oystersand other seafood Americans ate in 2009 was imported, according tothe latest figures from the National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration.

There’s room for growth domestically because more upscalesupermarkets are featuring shellfish, there’s growing demand forlocally produced food and the U.S. faces competition for foreignseafood from China and India, which are importing more shellfish tofeed their growing middle classes, said Michael Rubino, director ofthe National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s AquacultureProgram. Nationally, the shellfish industry generates $1 billion inwholesale sales each year, and it’s growing, he said.

Louisiana is the largest producer of shellfish, with majorindustries on each coast in Washington state and Virginia, Rubinosaid. In Connecticut, the industry is still relatively small, andrecent setbacks have the oystermen worried about hanging on. Mosthave repaired the damage from the storm, but they worry therestaurants and other customers who found other suppliers duringtheir month-long shutdown won’t be back.

“Once a customer gets his oysters from somebody else, it’sover,” Markow said.

Connecticut’s congressional delegation has written a letter toU.S. House Speaker John Boehner, asking that shellfish growers beeligible for federal disaster aid for the storm’s victims.Typically, they qualify only for low-interest loans, not grants,unless the shellfish are grown in controlled environments such aswire cages, according to the U.S. Farm Service Agency inConnecticut. Most Connecticut shellfish are grown in riverbeds.

Markow said the oystermen would like to grow more in controlledenvironments. he and others have asked for state permits for indoortanks that can serve as an alternative to the river and provide asteady supply of oysters. They’re also seeking permission forwinter harvesting from the river.

“We’d like to hire more people and grow,” he said. “It’s toughto do that when all you hear is no.”

David Carey, director of the Connecticut Department ofAgriculture’s aquaculture division, said it’s in the final year ofa three-year testing period for fecal matter and othercontamination from storm runoff. So far, the prospect of winterharvesting “looks very favorable,” but the state has to look at allthe data, he said.

“We have to go through all the hoops,” he said. “If someone getssick, we’re responsible.”

Along with the request for disaster aid, Rep. Joe Courtney,D-Conn., one of three new England congressmen on the HouseAgriculture Committee, is pushing federal legislation that wouldinclude shellfish among the specialty crops such as fruits, nuts,berries and flowers that qualify for federal marketing help.

“The fundamental issue is whether shellfish and aquaculture aregoing to receive parity with other forms of agriculture,” Courtneysaid. “Hurricane Irene has exposed this disparity.”

Shellfish growers can apply for federal disaster assistanceavailable for the entire fisheries industry, but Markow saidcompetition among the many segments makes that tough to get.

“We’re not really considered farmers. We’re not reallyconsidered fishermen,” Markow said recently as he replaced cagesand moved oysters to new beds 6 feet below the surface of theMystic River. “You get caught in between. Aquaculture is stillevolving.”

© 2011 the Associated Press. all rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Connecticut’s oystermen seek help after Irene – Coeur d’Alene Press: National News

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