Jonathan Waters grew up watching the oyster boats off the coast of Connecticut.
“I was bit by the bug early on,” he says.
In 1985, he started his own shellfish business harvesting 800 acres annually. After 20 years, he decided to semi-retire, selling off ground and observing as it changed hands before ultimately being acquired by the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DoAg).
In 2014, a complex deal to purchase the rights to cultivate and harvest 900 acres of shellfish franchise ground situated between the Thimble Islands and the coast of Branford from a private citizen was finalized by DoAg. This opened the door to foster development of new commercial aquaculture enterprises while increasing public awareness and support for local and sustainable aquaculture and public stewardship of the environment. The agency used $800,000 of available farmland preservation funds to acquire those rights.
“This was a unique proposal that we coalesced around in an effort to expand opportunities for small- scale and new farmers looking to grow oysters, clams and kelp,” DoAg Bureau of Aquaculture Director David Carey says. “This is a very special place on Connecticut’s coast where production activities occur in close proximity to the community, allowing access to fresh, high- quality products to nearby residents and beyond.”
Connecticut’s existing shellfish industry generates more than $23.2 million a year in farm-gate sales and provides over 300 jobs statewide. The state leases approximately 58,000 acres of shellfish ground to private operators.
The acquisition of the town shellfish franchise grounds presents an opportunity to create an aquaculture incubator area with DoAg administering the planting and cultivation of shellfish on the parcels through licenses allowing individuals to conduct shellfish activities.
All of this has reinvigorated Waters’ interest as he mentors small-scale aquaculture operators and currently leases a 5-acre parcel in addition to ground he owns. “This ground has been in oyster production since the 1700s; it is historical ground,” Waters says. “I’m interested in the continuum.”
Waters is building a traditional, turn-of-the-century rear-cabin oyster boat to harvest the bottom-cultured oysters that are transplanted onto his beds. He will plant about 16 one- ton bulk bags of oyster shell in a portion of the project where the oyster seed will readily recruit before being moved for grow out.
Chris Walston of C.W. Shellfish has plans to take part in the seed oyster program, but in the meantime, he planted 400,000 15- to 20-millimeter clam seed last year with plans to plant 12 million seeds in the spring of 2019.
“The Branford Initiative has allowed me to expand my business and given me access to one of the cleanest and fastest-growing shallow areas,” Walston says. “I’m looking forward to working with DoAg to bring this area back.”
A crucial component of the project has been working with the local community to be sure that parcels are leased in a way that doesn’t interfere with the people who commute by water to their island homes or the ferryboats that tourists use to see the islands. Carey shares that Waters has been instrumental in doing so.
One of the largest hurdles for those new to the industry is navigating the state and federal requirements and the permitting process. Kim Granbery, a longtime friend of Waters, is excited to be involved as a mentor.
“I’m personally involved for the historical preservation and this initiative embodies a vision for putting together a sustainable, successful and long-range program,” he says.
Both Waters and Granbery would like to see more activity and growth in small-scale production but recognize that it’s daunting for many. Granbery has documented the entire process, offering a road map of how to get started with the goal of a dozen small-scale operations working cooperatively.
Walston echoes their sentiment. “I hope more young people will use this property to grow shellfish. The pristine shallow water is excellent for taste, appearance and growth that an operator will benefit from for years to come,” he says.
“The oysters here are phenomenal,” Granbery concludes. “We’re excited to get it back on the map.”