CLINTON >> Before the sun is up most mornings, the crew at Indian River Shellfish Company is at work, ready to tend to the oysters they are farming in the Hammonasset River.
George Harris and Michael Gilman, who own the business, farm Eastern Oysters (Crassostrea virginica) from a small dock behind the Ice House on Route 1 in Madison, along with Michael’s dad, Skip Gilman and Spencer Hull.
The company was started eight years ago and moved to its current location almost two years ago. The Hammonasset River, where the oyster farming takes place, is leased from both Clinton and Madison.
Madison First Selectman Tom Banisch is excited about this venture.
“I think it’s really encouraging that we have a growing industry in such an old business,” he says. “The fact that people did shellfishing 200 years ago and now it’s a growing industry in town.”
Within sight of the Cedar Island Marina, the company has over 350 bottom cages to tend to on 8 to 10 acres of a leased 90-acre plot. The work is arduous and muddy.
“You have to like to be outside, you really have to like getting dirty, definitely not mind bugs, definitely have to able to deal with the heat, deal with the cold,” says Michael Gilman.
“You definitely have to like to work,” adds Harris.
The oyster season starts in April and continues as long as the crew can safely go out on the water. While it conceivably could be year round, the size of the Indian River Shellfish Co.’s crew makes this difficult.
“Every year we work longer into the winter,” Michael Gilman says. “Usually the winter is when it gets really slow. Every year we work longer.”
They have recently increased their fleet, adding an Atkins 34 and a brand new 24-foot Carolina Skiff to the operation.
On a recent morning, outfitted in well-worn orange, waterproof bibs and rubber boots, Harris and Michael Gilman headed out in the Gracie Ann, a 21-foot Seahawk, to check on their cages.
Farther out, in Long Island Sound, Skip Gilman and Hull, aboard the Miss Wendy, a General Marine 26, harvested oysters to go to market.
Oysters are purchased as 4- to 6-millimeter babies from a Long Island hatchery. They are placed in cages, suspended on buoys in the Hammonasset River and left for a year and a half to two years to grow, until they are ready to be harvested.
Once fully grown, they are sent out to Long Island Sound for depuration, which takes about two weeks.
“We have to sort our oysters here, get them ready for harvest and then we have to send them out to clean water where we have more leases and they have to sit there for the time it takes for them to purge,” explains Michael Gilman. “We can’t sell an oyster unless it’s deemed clean enough by the state.”
The business has grown from harvesting about 200 oysters four years ago to currently harvesting from 2,000 to 5,000 oysters a week. The mollusks are sold wholesale to Lobster Landing in Clinton and Gulf Shrimp in Plantsville. Gulf Shrimp sells to the Connecticut, Boston and New York markets, including Guilford’s Star Fish Market and Old Saybrook’s Saybrook Point Inn & Spa.
“I’m always looking for new sources for local product, so when George had this adventure he contacted us and talked about us distributing this product,” says Gulf Shrimp owner Chad Simoneaux, who buys 4,000 to 10,000 oysters a week.
“The quality is excellent. It’s got a nice salt content,” Simoneaux adds. “It’s a nice petite oyster…and the response has been great from our customers so far.”
There is no typical day for these shellfish farmers.
“It could be pouring rain out, it could be snowing, it could two foot waves in here, it could anything,” says 33-year-old Michael Gilman. “We’ve had it all.”
The oyster, a bivalve mollusk, has thrived in Connecticut waters for centuries.
Native Americans here consumed large quantities and early settlers here “found oysters to be a staple and reliable food source,” according to ct.gov website. Interestingly, the “first colonial laws regulating the taking of oysters in Connecticut appeared in the early 1700s.”
By the late 19th century, oyster farming was a major industry in the state, the website notes, and during the 1890s, Connecticut “held the distinction of having the largest fleet of oyster steamers in the world.”
The Hammonasset River is a breeding ground for natural oysters, but the crew has had to extensively work the river bed to create a favorable environment for this to happen, dredging it and laying down a shell bed for a more fertile breeding ground.
Currently, they do not freely spread the oysters across the sea floor, which would involve extensive bottom dredging or trawling and impact the environment. Instead, they use the contained bottom cage method, according to their website, indianrivershellfish.com.
“They love this entire harbor,” says Michael Gilman about the bivalves. “But about 20 years ago most of them were wiped out from disease.
“Same thing with the lobsters, they think the water got a little bit too warm and made it a little bit easier for parasites to grow,” he adds.
Indian River Shellfish’s work on the river is proving to be beneficial.
“The environmental impact has been awesome,” says Harris. “We’ve been bringing in Asian Shore crabs now, blue crabs growing on the cages. So as far as the environmental side of it, it’s been a lot better, it’s been more beneficial to the harbor itself.”
Michael Gilman brings his marine science background to the job, having worked at Cedar Island Marina Research Laboratory for years. When he is not on the water raising oysters he is a science teacher at East Windsor High School.
Prior to embarking on oyster farming, Harris, of Clinton, had a lobster and snail business. While he still harvests snails, to be consumed as scungilli, that season ends in July and his lobster business has waned over the years. His long term goal is to concentrate all his energies on the oyster farming business.
“Trying not to do the lobsters anymore and the snails anymore, just strictly concentrating on the oysters,” the 51-year-old says.
“It’s easier for me,” he adds. “I’m getting older, I don’t want to haul that gear anymore. This is a lot more fun. We work right here, right outside our dock. It’s close. We’re close to home.”
Both men agree that there are obstacles they have had to overcome.
“Just like a regular farmer has problems with pests and things change as time goes on and invasive species and all that stuff,” says Michael Gilman. “It’s kind of the same thing.”
The farming is often unpredictable and the pair has worked hard, along with Skip Gilman and Hull, to build the business.
“We were told at first that it was going to be impossible for us to do it,” recalls Harris.
Yet both men agree that despite all the hard work they love what they are doing.
“This is awesome,” says Harris. “Sun’s coming up, we’ve got a great view, it’s a nice office to work in.”
Adds Michael Gilman, “It’s a really nice ride to work in the morning.”
The added benefit is watching the fruits of their labor grow and flourish and sending the product out to market.
“It’s fun to watch the farm,” says Harris. “You watch the babies grow. They’re the size of a pinhead and then, like now the big boat’s out harvesting and when the truck shows up in a few hours you load the truck up and you know it was all worth it. We just keep going.”