Monday, August 8, 2011

Starfish.... And Other Threats

"The fishermen are gone; the lobsters are gone.....
Shellfishing's the one thing that remains"

Wherever oysters thrive, starfish are likely to follow. When Bren hoisted the cage on board, several starfish  could be seen clinging to the grow-out-bag. They are an oyster's biggest predator, and it's a never-ending struggle to keep them from devouring the harvest. Combined with the threats from pollution, oysters are incredibly vulnerable in Long Island Sound.

There are more subtle enemies of the industry, as well.
In the early morning hours, Stony Creek has the look of a sleepy waterfront village that's somehow remained forgotten. For the most part, the houses here are relatively modest in size, and you don't see the usual assortment of seafood restaurants, gift shops, and other tourist oriented businesses which often dominate  many shoreline towns. If you're looking to buy a Life Is Good or Black Dog tee-shirt, this is not the place.

Stony Creek was "discovered" long ago, but a great deal of effort and money is spent preserving its understated aura. Once an eclectic mix of summer residents, artists, quarrymen, fishermen, and assorted tradesmen who serviced the islands, it's become increasingly one-dimensional in recent decades. There's a Currier & Ives existence that's still embraced, but it's ornamental. The working waterfront is now residential houses, with oars and fishing gear precisely accenting their entryways. The word "quaint" gets tossed around a bit too much.

These real-estate pressures mean that Bren has no garage or workshop in town to repair his gear, process his oysters, or store supplies. With only a parking space for his truck, he has overcome these obstacles through innovative self-sufficiency.
In the bed of his truck rests a solar and battery powered refrigerator he uses to transport the oysters from the waterfront to market. Used by the armed forces in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, this is an expensive piece of equipment allowing him to operate without access to waterfront electricity. It also meets the regulatory safety requirements for transporting shellfish.

Now, if only there was a piece of equipment to keep the starfish and pollution at bay.

Soundbounder: Stony Creek 6am (part 1)
Soundbounder: Just Your Local Oysterman (part 2)
Soundbounder: Hauling The Cage  (part 3)
Yale Sustainable Food Project
Our Ocean, Our Lives: The Last Oyster Haul?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Hauling The Cage

Unlike the oysters growing in beds on the bottom of the Sound, Bren's are cultivated in cages which he tends to on a daily basis. These are rectangular, wire mesh contraptions resembling a large lobster pot at first glance. Closer inspection however, reveals there are shelves, or trays inside, supporting the oysters.

Oyster seedlings are grouped in a grow out bag, then placed inside the cage, and lowered into the water. As the oysters grow, they are switched to larger 'bags' with wider mesh to maximize waterflow, yet still restrict predators. It is not an exact science, so an ongoing degree of experimentation is always taking place. Some years, the oysters thrive inside the larger mesh, while in others, a smaller size is needed to thwart preying starfish. Through careful monitoring, the entire balancing act from seedling to harvest takes about three years.

Peter, Helen and myself were also seeking an equilibrium. We were trying to learn as much as possible, without interfering with the work at hand. Some moments were more successful than others!
As Bren began to raise the cage, we gathered around him for a better view. The boat immediately listed hard to starboard before we quickly moved away, providing some ballast. When you're on board with a small, independent, Thimble Islands oysterman, a balancing act can mean many different things.

Soundbounder: Stony Creek 6am part 1
Soundbounder: Just Your Local Oysterman part 2
Soundbounder: Starfish...And Other Threats part 4

Monday, August 1, 2011

Just Your Local Oysterman

Bren wasn't kidding when he said he never learned to swim. Raised along the shores of Newfoundland, the short summers and biting temperatures of the Labrador Current didn't provide many swimming opportunities. A rugged coastline with a strong maritime tradition, the connection to the sea there is mostly through labor, not recreation. How ironic I thought, for him to now be in Long Island Sound where the reverse equation often exists today.

A man of many hats, Bren worked a variety of jobs including longlining in the Bering Sea, 'sliming' in the canneries of Alaska, and lobstering north of Boston. When the crooked road of life brought him to Connecticut, he drove a lumber truck while also partnering with his girlfriend in a woodcrafting business which uses reclaimed materials*. About seven years ago, the Branford waters were reopened to commercial shellfishing, and he jumped at the chance to return to the sea.

His Thimble Island Oyster Company grows and harvests oysters along with some clams, on 60 aquatic acres leased from the state. The numbers fluctuate from year-to-year, but his annual harvest averages around 100,000 shellfish. While that may appear to be a large number, it is a relatively small amount when compared to other shellfish companies on the Sound. Bren estimates that his annual harvest is less than what Norwalk's Bloom Shellfish Company may harvest in a month.

Though a small operation, he is able to earn a living so long as he keeps his overhead costs low: no secretary or pricey boat.... no hired help to do the heavy lifting. Most important, he is doing what he loves - and that's not too shabby for a Newfie who can't swim.

Thimble Island Oyster Company
Community Supported Fisheries Program
Soundbounder: Stony Creek 6 a.m. part one
Soundbounder: Hauling The Cage part three
Soundbounder: Starfish...And other Threats part four

*Bren continues to supplement his income, partnering with his girlfriend Nicola in their woodcrafting business using reclaimed materials. Bleacher seats from the Yale Bowl are reincarnated as mirror frames, and wood from Brooklyn watertowers become flower pots. You can find them at the Union Square Market during the holiday season.
Nicola & The Newfoundlander
New York Times: Reclaimed Words in Fort Greene