I’ve been to our Milford Point Coastal Center three times in the last 10 days, and each time I walked along the massive sand bar that curves out from the beach. The tide line is paved with oyster shells, as white as chalk in the midday late June sunlight.
Milford Point is at the mouth of the Housatonic River, and the Housatonic estuary is like a thick stew of oysters in various life stages – eggs and sperm, larvae, planktonic juveniles, adults of all ages – and so I didn’t think much about all the shells. It seemed normal that they’d be there. But then on Wednesday, during my last visit, I was with a TV crew working on a story about Piping Plovers. They shot footage of a plover on a nest, interviewed Connecticut Audubon Society staff, and then talked to a couple of people who happened to be out on the beach.
One of those folks was a woman who said her name was Vivien and who said her family had lived at Milford Point for ages. When her interview was over, she remarked offhandedly that there were so many more oyster shells this year than she remembered from the past.
Something clicked. I told her I remembered seeing a tremendous number of spent shells on the beaches near Norwalk about 12 years ago. What had happened, I said, was that a couple of diseases – known as dermo and MSX – had decimated the oyster population, leaving the empty shells to be washed by the tides onto the beaches. I hadn’t heard of any diseases lately, I said, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was happening again.
When I left the beach on Wednesday another theory occurred to me, and I called David Carey, director of Connecticut’s Bureau of Aquaculture, which oversees shellfishing in the state’s part of Long Island Sound. He confirmed it:
What I had seen at Milford Point, he said, was not the aftermath of recent diseases. They were shells of oysters that had been buried and suffocated by the turbulence of Hurricane Irene last August, and also shells of oysters that had been killed years ago by dermo and MSX and that were disinterred by the turbulence of Hurricane Irene.
Almost all of Connecticut’s Long Island Sound coast produces oysters but the Housatonic, the Quinnipiac River in New Haven and the Norwalk Islands are particularly fecund. I had no problem finding shoehorn-shaped shells that were as long as my hand, and the one on which I happened to count the growth rings (pictured here) had been at least 15 years old.
How much long term damage the storm left is hard to say. I noted that three or four oyster boats were working out from the mouth of Milford Harbor. And Vivien, the woman who mentioned the abundance of shells, told me she had just seen a big bird on the mudflats that she had never seen before. It was black and brown and white, she said, and it had an orange bill. Did I know what it was?
Sure, I said. It’s an American Oystercatcher. – Tom Andersen, director of communications and community outreach