From Budapest with love (and oysters)

The oyster boat Catherine Wedmore off Guilford, Conn., hauling a load of shells. The oyster industry in Conn. goes back 100 years. Photo courtesy

Guest perspective/Ed Jankovic

A few years after the Cold War ended I was in Budapest, Hungary, and it being around Thanksgiving, I hoped I could locate a restaurant in the city that might remind me of home. An old place on Csanyi Street, just around the corner from Andrassy Street, had recently established some new suppliers, and had a varied menu. Not American, but varied.

After my customary introductory glass of Bull’s Blood wine and a hearty bowl of goulash, I noticed that oysters were on the menu. Being knowledgeable about oysters, I asked to see the tag that would indicate where they were grown and harvested. The tag was signed by Hillard Bloom, a long-time oysterman who happened to be from my hometown of Norwalk, Conn., and whose oysters are considered some of the finest on the U.S. East Coast. So, as I enjoyed one of the items (dozens actually) that likely appeared on the original Thanksgiving menu in 1621, I soon felt less removed from the New World and began to recall the pleasant memories of the clamming and oystering I’ve done since my early childhood.

Now here is where this little story really begins – at the docks and boats and shellfish beds of Long Island Sound. Let me explain some of the history of this industry and then try to convey the importance of oysters and shellfish to Connecticut’s ecology and economy – and to me.

The oyster industry in Connecticut goes back over 100 years. At that time, although acres were already owned or leased, the concept of cultivating oysters as an aquacultural crop was not quite in place. In these modern days of 2018, the successful commercial harvesters operate on a precise business model, with clams and oysters sold like any foodstuff commodity. The shellfish beds are planted and harvested in the sense that oysters and clams spawn in certain locations, grow in others, and are then transplanted to other beds for last-year growth and cleansing stages. An oyster generally takes three years to grow to market size. In the shellfish market, consumer demand is the primary price determinant.

Commercial activity is complemented with recreational shellfishing on Connecticut’s coast. Commercial operators invest heavily in capital equipment and leases, pay taxes as any business does, and develop and maintain distribution networks for their harvest. Recreational shellfishers buy permits, tools, and fuel in order to harvest their catch. While recreational permits provide about $100,000 in permit fees to the 14 coastal towns that offer permits, an estimated average value for the entire Long Island Sound recreational fishery from the Connecticut DEEP between 2000 and 2004 was $149.3 million. On a larger picture, a study by Connecticut Sea Grant estimated the total economic impact of the maritime sector in Connecticut at nearly $7 billion in 2010 [the last year harvest data was available], and the value-added impact at the state level at $4 billion.

There are other less tangible benefits of healthy shellfish resources in coastal waters, including habitat for fish, barnacles, seaweed and other marine organisms. A thriving ecosystem stabilizes shorelines and sediment, improves water clarity by filtering, links life on the sea floor with food from above, and removes excess nitrogen from the water. One oyster pumps, filters, and clears about 15 gallons of seawater per day. This cleansing process allows for more diversity and abundance in the aquacultural structure. Socioeconomic benefits include the satisfaction received by recreational harvesters from their catch, coastal property owners who enjoy clearer waters due to shellfish filtration, and the commercial businesses who rely on good water quality as part of their business plans.

Every once in a while I enjoy a ride on some of the commercial vessels, observing the methods and activities onboard and dockside that contribute to the success of the oyster companies. New harvesting and handling techniques developed by my old-line Norwalk oyster farmer and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture have created even more safe and understandable distribution of shellfish to consumers and restaurants. This increases confidence among consumers that shellfish are indeed tasty, healthy and available.

When I’m out on my own boat collecting my own supper and see the commercial boys plying their trade, flashes of childhood, boats, Budapest, and economic power sometimes scratch through my memory as my tongs scratch the bottom of the Sound. That is a basic, rejuvenating time, steeling me for the next trip overseas, the next class I’ll teach, or the drive home.

Edward M. Jankovic is a former commodities broker and now a professor of international financial affairs and economics at the University of Bridgeport, his alma mater (MBA 1979). Born and raised in Norwalk, he has spent his years on Long Island Sound, enjoying the water and all things connected to it.