Saturday, February 27, 2010


This is the boat I originally intended to visit on that Friday afternoon earlier this month. Built in Greenwich in 1945, Hope is believed to be the last oyster sloop built on Long Island Sound. Unfortunately, I know little else about her. Caught up in the moment, I entirely  forgot to ask Norm Bloom any questions regarding her. To the best of my knowledge, she has been owned by the Norwalk Seaport Association since the 1980's.

Last year, I read an old New York Times article that discussed oystering under sail. A man named Philip Teuscher filmed an oral history of the men in Norwalk and Bridgeport who had worked these last remaining boats. The documentary was to be entitled The Last Drift.
Sadly,I have been unable to locate the film. My emails to several local historical societies remain unanswered, and  google searches only provided me with more information on Vin Diesel than I would ever want to know. Perhaps the film was never completed. Nonetheless, I will continue to look for it.

* Update: David Berkowitz of Bridgeport was kind enough to email and inform me that the University of Connecticut has copies of Last Drift. I am now in the process of contacting them.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lobsters Too

Oystering is the main activity for Norm Bloom and Son, but clams and lobsters are part of the business too. We didn't talk much about clamming, but when one of the company lobster boats came into view, the conversation naturally went in that direction. 
In the late 1990's, lobsters in Long Island Sound suffered a widespread die-off that destroyed most of the lobster industry here. There have been many theories about the causes, and Norm seems to believe that it is a combination of these that led to the crash in population.

  1. Lobster populations thrive in colder waters, and decrease as you move southward. The Sound is at the southern end of the larger population area. As water temperatures increased, the Sound became too warm for lobsters to thrive.

  2. The rise in water temperatures allowed a parasite to flourish which destroyed the lobster population.

  3. The use of pesticides, including the extensive spraying to combat West Nile Virus, may have been equally destructive against lobsters.

  4. A transfer of a disease from bait used by lobstermen.

  5. An overpopulation of lobsters brought on by over feeding. The abundance of baited lobster traps led to an increase in size and overpopulation.  Smaller lobsters feed on the bait yet can escape the traps or be thrown back by lobstermen. Too many traps led to an unnatural population.
Time flies when you are talking about lobsters. As Norm finished explaining his theories about the die-off, the crackling of ice against the hull made it clear that we were approaching the dock. After pivoting the boat, he put her in reverse and backed in to the narrow slip. I grabbed the frozen spring line, jumped off the boat at mid ship, and made it fast to the cleat. The lobster boat we had passed followed right behind. 

(More To Follow)
Washington Post: A Knell For Lobsters
Boston Globe: Shell Shocked
Soundbounder: Fruits Of Winter (part one)
Soundbounder: I Love It Out Here... (part two)
Soundbounder: Mary Colman (part three)
Soundbounder: Lifting The Dredge (part four)
Soundbounder: Little Growler (part five)

Friday, February 19, 2010

Little Growler

One of the last boats Norman Bloom and I visited that Friday is also one of the newer boats in the fleet. Little Growler is a fiberglass dredger built in the late 1980's. While somewhat smaller in size, the operation that takes place aboard her is more or less the same. She was working an area north of the other boats, and was much closer to the  Connecticut shoreline.
"That area over there used to only have a few houses." Norm said as he motioned to the stretch of shoreline that extends from East Norwalk to Westport. He then went on to describe the slippery slope that follows this development. There is runoff from the roads; expensive lawns loaded with fertilizers; and soon there is a dock and a boat outside each home. "That was all 2-3 feet of water in there at one time."He explained.
I knew the area he was describing well. My summer job in high school was at Rex Marine in South Norwalk. Several times I had worked on customers' boats docked in the back yards along this stretch that Norm had pointed to. I remember thinking how nice the homes were, never once realizing that there could be a negative impact from them. I also thought back to something I had read in the book, This Fine Piece Of Water.  Development is mostly decided upon at the local level. Each proposal, in isolation, produces a "small but acceptable burden of pollution". When combined however, the destruction is large.
Norm then went on to describe a group called Harbor Watch, who test and moniter the water quality around Norwalk Harbor. "They are always testing." He told me. There are also plans to relocate the groups' laboratory alongside his office. 
Oysters feed by filtering suspended particles in the water, and the quality of water is essential to their existence. While harbors such as Norwalk may be cleaner than they were 30 years ago, the threats from sewage, chemicals, destruction of marshes, and development remain constant. No clean water, no oyster industry.
(More To Follow)

Hartford Courant: Saving The Oyster
Soundbounder: Fruits Of Winter (part one)
Soundbounder: I Love It Out Here... (part two)
Soundbounder: Mary Colman (part three)
Soundbounder: Lifting The Dredge (part four)

references: This Fine Piece Of Water, by Tom Andersen; Yale University Press; pages 172-73

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Lifting The Dredge

When I hear the word dredge, I usually think of the process of excavating a harbor bottom to make it more navigable. A dredge however, is an oystering term, as well. It is an odd looking contraption, that I can only describe as being part-basket and part-rake. Instead of  altering the Sound's bottom, it's purpose is to gather oysters with as little damage as possible. Damage to the bottom means damage to the oysters, and a bed not properly dredged, can destroy the harvest. 
Careless dredging isn't the only threat to an oyster. Strong noreasters and hurricanes can wreak havoc on  beds by burying them under sand. A large presence of starfish can devour a bed over time, as well. Pollution meanwhile, remains the  most constant and pressing threat (later post). While I was aware of these threats, Norman Bloom mentioned another that I had not considered;... theft. 
Often the oyster beds are marked by little more than a wooden stake that rises a few feet from the surface. In certain years, some beds may flourish while others do not. Norman described a scenario where a boat may be working a bed with limited results, but finds the edge of the bed is more productive. It can be very tempting to cross over that line and dredge someone elses bed. "You have to keep your eyes open". Norman said.
The moment he said those words, it answered a question I had not asked earlier. On our way out of the harbor, I noticed he didn't follow the channel's eastern course, and instead seemed to be zig-zagging all over the place. At one point we were over near Sprite Island, which was far north of the channel and our destination. "Maybe he is taking me on the scenic route." I joked to myself. It now seems very clear that while he was talking to me about getting only 31 cents an oyster, he was also keeping an eye out for other boats dredging his beds. 
Pollution, starfish, storms, and theft. There are a lot of things to keep an eye on at once. 

(More To Follow)
Soundbounder: The Fruits Of Winter (part one)
Soundbounder: I Love It Out Here This Time Of Year (part two)
Soundbounder: Mary Colman (part three)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mary Colman

Like many farming and fishing industries, there are both good and bad years for oystering. Sometimes the good or bad years can last a decade. One of the first questions I asked Norman Bloom was what kind of year has it been. Perhaps I didn't phrase my question correctly, or maybe he fully understood , but decided to take a different angle with his answer. He said the biggest problem is the costs for fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc, are all going up, but he is still being paid the same price for oysters as he was twenty years ago. I asked him what he gets paid for a bushel, and he told me that they are no longer priced per bushel.Oysters are now sold by the count of one hundred. A bushel of one hundred sells for 31 dollars, or 31 cents per oyster."And that includes delivery in most cases", he told me.

He seemed disgusted by the fact that the price of oysters in restaurants and seafood markets has increased significantly, while the price he is paid remains stagnant.* I am not sure if this was a plan in the works, or if he was simply brainstorming, but Norman talked about wanting to set up a system where he would sell directly to restaurants and stores in the region. The oysters could be sold at a lower price, so long as the savings was passed on to the consumers. "The goal is to get more people eating oysters", he said.
We approached the Mary Colman, which is another 1920's era oyster boat in the fleet. She is a smaller version of the Ringgold Brothers but appeared to be in much better condition. The pre-fab pilothouse was a clear indication she had undergone extensive renovation. The crew seemed especially happy to see us. Perhaps the isolation of being on a boat in Long Isand Sound during February, made any interaction a special occasion. Then again, maybe they were just glad it was Friday afternoon, and the paychecks had arrived.

(More To Follow)
Soundbounder: The Fruits Of Winter (part one)
Soundbounder: I Love It Out Here This Time Of Year (part two)
Soundbounder: Lifting The Dredge (part four)
Norm Bloom & Son

* I call this the Poinsettia Process. North of San Diego is the town of Carlsbad CA, which is famous for it's poinsettias. Every November the plants are shipped to wholesalers, who then ship them to the distribution centers of chain stores. Eventually they make it back to the grocery stores and Home Depots in San Diego, and sell for the same price as they do in Hartford and Brooklyn. It happens with seafood too.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I Love It Out Here This Time Of Year

I have never been out on Long Island Sound in February. To the best of my memory, I don't think I have ever been aboard a boat here during the 90-plus days we call winter. I have ventured out in early December and late March, but never in between. Not everyone however, spends their winter months ashore. While boats such as mine sit idle under tarps and shrink wrap, oyster boats along with ferries, tugs, and lobster boats continue their daily routine.
Winter is a busy time of year for oystering. The colder water makes harvesting ideal compared to the warmer months when the shellfish spawn. The winter holidays also create a high demand, which had never occured to me. Another benefit of winter harvesting is the absence of recreational boats. There are few things as frustrating for a crew as trying to do a job, while keeping an eye on a jet-ski that is drawing circles around the boat . " I love it out here this time of year", Norm told me.

After passing Pecks Ledge Lighthouse, the fleet of boats came into view. Our first stop was alongside a larger and more utilitarian looking boat than the traditional  wooden dredgers in the fleet. The Kristen Laura is a suction boat whose  purpose is to clean the oyster beds of silt, barnacles, etc, and to transport them from one location to another. "This boat makes no money", Norm said. This meant that the Kristen Laura was a maintenance boat and was not used for actual harvesting. Just as a farmer needs to own lots of machinery and equipment that does not gather a crop, so too does an oysterman. In many ways, oystering is more similar to farming than commercial fishing. There are seeds that need planting, fields that need plowing, and weeds that need pulling. Oystering is aquatic farming
The Kristen Laura held her course and maintained a speed of about 5 knots. A crewmember saw us and immediately waved as we approached her port side. I grabbed the envelope full of payroll checks, left the cozy protection of the small cabin, and headed aft. "When I get right up alongside her, you hand those to him", Norm said. "Make sure he has them before you let go. Don't drop them!"
I braced my legs against the gunwale of our small boat, reached out with my left hand to grab the black metal rail of the Kristen Laura, and handed the envelope off with my right hand. "He's got 'em!" I yelled.

(More To Follow)

Soundbounder: The Fruits Of Winter (part one)
Soundbounder: Mary Colman (part three) 
Soundbounder: Lifting The Dredge (part four)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Fruits Of Winter

There are many things I have wanted to do this winter, such as go on a seal watch, and see some of the ice boating in Old Lyme. One activity that never crossed my mind was to deliver paychecks to the oyster boats southeast of the Norwalk Islands. That all changed this week.
On Friday I stopped by the Norman Bloom Shellfish Company in East Norwalk to look at some of the old oyster boats. I asked permission at the office before walking the dock to an old sloop named Hope, which is believed to be the oldest remaining Long Island Sound oyster sloop. About ten minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I spotted a man walking down the dock. It was clear to me that this was not someone who had left some tools aboard a boat, or was out for a casual walk. I was his destination. I pretended I didn't see him and quickly began memorizing a few lines about how I had been given permission.
I couldn't have been more wrong! As his footsteps grew louder I heard him call out to me asking if I would like to see some more boats. He needed to deliver some paychecks to the crews from Bridgeport working outside the harbor. Caught completely off guard, I told him I wasn't properly dressed to be out on the water in February. "You'll be fine" he said. "We'll only be out for a half hour or so". I would be able to take some pictures of the boats in action, and besides, he could use a hand.
Moments later, we were tossing the lines from the dock and making our way across a thin sheet of harbor ice. I introduced myself and told him a quick line or two about Soundbounder. He said his name was Norm. "Norman Bloom?" I asked.
"Yeah, that's me", he answered back.

(More To Follow)

Norm Bloom & Sons
Soundbounder: I Love It Out Here This Time Of Year (part two)
Soundbounder: Mary Colman (part three)
Soundbounder: Lifting The Dredge (part four)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Umbrella Point

The best laid plans of mice and men

I knew this would happen sooner or later. On a day following the December snowfall, I stopped by Manor Park in Larchmont after running a few Christmas errands. I had hoped to take some pictures for a holiday post, and  send them to some friends and family in warmer climates.  The sun was low in the sky, and except for a few footprints along the walkways, the snow was still undisturbed. Everything seemed in place for taking some beautiful winter photos.
While some of you may occasionally wake up on the wrong side of the bed,  I have days where I fall eight feet from the top bunk. After taking numerous shots, I noticed a small red dot blinking on the camera. At first I thought it was telling me that the battery was low, which was not a problem since I was nearly finished shooting. Unfortunately the light meant  something else: there was no memory card in the camera. Sure enough, I found the card attached to it's adapter, sitting on a table alongside the computer at home. Since then, I have tried to remind myself that I don't visit these places to just take photographs. Six weeks later however, it still bothers me.
I returned to Manor Park recently, but there was no virgin snow. With much of Long Island Sound  now blanketed in a January Thaw, my visit the previous month seemed far removed. I walked along the east end of the park to an area known as Umbrella Point. I checked to see if  the memory card was in the camera; I shot a few photos,...... then I checked it again.

Soundbounder: Larchmont Manor Park

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

McCabe's Beach

Just a few miles west of the Horton Point Lighthouse in Southold is McCabe's Beach. This is a resident-only town beach in the summer months, but during the off-season no proof of residency is required. This is one of those locations that I stumbled upon while trying to find someplace else. I had followed Horton Point Lane hoping to find the lighthouse of the same name, but instead the road came to an end at this beach.

It was one of those beautiful November days which resembled September more than Veterans Day, but that is not what I remember most. What stands out more from this day was how clear the water was. For reasons I do not fully understand, the waters of Long Island Sound tend to be at their clearest during the autumn months. It has something to do with the growth suspended in the water that dies off as the days grow shorter (I think).
Clarity however, is not the same thing as cleanliness. It took me a long time to understand the difference. As an estuary, the Sound is a brackish mixture of fresh and salt water that is fed by numerous rivers and two daily tides. It tends to be a cloudy body of water; that much I know. The peaks and valleys of clarity are not neccesarily an indication of the Sound's health. There is an old saying which states a little bit of knowledge is dangerous. But looking out from McCabes Beach on that November afternoon, I remembered another old line about the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.

Panoramio: Photo And Map