Thursday, March 29, 2007

Shellfisherman to search new spot for oysters, clams

Some local Long Island issues, courtest the Greenwich Time

Staff Writer

Published March 27 2007

After more than 200 years of sifting Long Island Sound's sandy floor from canoes, skipjacks, steam engines and trawlers, shellfishermen say they've figured out which areas yield the meatiest, most abundant oyster and clam crops.

The prized underwater beds are privately owned or leased from the state Department of Agriculture, and are sold from generation to generation of shellfisherman.

So its rare for a shellfisherman to do what Greenwich's Jardar Nygaard is proposing--seek to farm unclaimed and unproven acreage.

"There's a risk. There is absolutely a risk involved, but you're making an informed decision when you do this," said Nygaard, owner of Fjord Fisheries seafood shop in Cos Cob. "You're going to be right to some extent and you really just risk what you feel it's worth."

Nygaard is seeking to lease two plots in the Sound, totaling about 183 acres and located a few thousand feet southeast of Greenwich Point. To farm the plots, Nygaard checked with the agriculture department's Milford-based Aquaculture Bureau to make sure the sites are available. The bureau then advertised Nygaard's intentions and called for bids to lease the property.

Bids must be at least $4 per acre per year and are due Monday. If he wins the leases, Nygaard said, he intends to start farming the plots right away, with a goal of selling clams.

What he's doing is highly unusual in the world of shellfishing, said David Carey, the bureau's director.

"The leases are automatically renewed at the choice of the lessee, if he meets the terms and conditions. That's why we only get about 10 new applications a year," Carey said."You'd think that shellfishermen, between (the year) 1800 and last year, have pretty much picked out the best areas."

But the Sound has a way of surprising shellfishermen who think they've mastered the practice, said Ed Stilwagen, who works about 3,000 acres in the Sound as owner of Byram River-based Atlantic Clam Farms.

"If you're around a while you find out where the good spots are, but it changes based on the current and other conditions. It's not a totally consistent thing at all," Stilwagen said. "There's a lot of luck involved. Sometimes it's better to be in some areas than others, for reasons we don't even know about."

Even so, state officials give potential shellfishermen some time to survey the shellfishing beds they intend to lease. Under a one-day permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection, Ny gaard spent several hours on his hydraulic dredge last week, surveying about four of the acres he's interested in.

Nygaard, who already leases 50 acres in Greenwich and 220 in Westport, believes that eddying at high and low tides could help seeds take hold in the beds and yield shellfish in the proposed sites.

"Also, during storms, it could create large amounts of shell deposit, which is also a good environment," Nygaard said.

Still, the proposed beds --–one of which lies entirely in Greenwich, while the other straddles the Greenwich-Stamford line --–could be difficult to manage, Nygaard said. Depths vary widely from place to place and waters can be choppy most days, which makes it difficult to do the sensitive work of trawling the bottom of the Sound for clams, Nygaard said.

For Leslie Miklovich, co-owner of Hillard Bloom Shellfish in Norwalk, the only true gauge for how fertile an area is for shellfishing is history itself.

"Historically we know which grounds are the best," said Miklovich, whose business farms about 10,000 acres in the Sound and whose family has been in shellfishing since 1875. "Just history from the old-timers, that's what it's about. Over the years, everything has been tried. All these grounds have been tried before."

For Nygaard, who has long been interested in aquaculture and whose family went into salmon farming years ago, trying to find a good shellfishing crop where no one has before may offer its own rewards.

"I just think that cultivation of shellfish is a good business to be in," Nygaard said. "For one thing, it's sustainable, and basically eco-friendly."

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