Something in the Water

Something in the Water

New Haven: the birthplace of the hamburger and, arguably, home to the finest pizza in America. But for centuries it was Crassotrea Virginica—the eastern oyster, a.k.a. the Atlantic oyster—that was the pride of New Haven’s food culture.

A staple of the native Quinnipiac diet when Puritan settlers arrived in 1638, the hard-shelled bivalve became an integral part of the fledgling colony. According to Virginia Galpin’s 1989 history New Haven’s Oyster Industry (1638-1987), the shallow, pristine beds along the Long Island Sound were so rife with the mollusks that people could simply wade into the water and pick up as many of the grayish marbled delicacies as they liked.

For contemporary oyster fans, that may seem unbelievable. An overwhelming majority of the oysters available in restaurants around town today are imported from other coastal harbors, usually outside of Connecticut, and are typically priced at around $3 apiece. This is despite the fact that, as Galpin notes, “New Haven Harbor is ideal” for oysters, which favor a mix of salt and fresh water like you’ll find at the shallow mouths of the Quinnipiac and Mill rivers and around City Point.

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New Haven’s first oystermen harvested organic clusters of oysters, called “natural growthers,” by the bushel for selling inland. Shoreline communities grew as people moved closer to the booming trade. Related industries, including “coopers, shipwrights, riggers and blacksmiths” (Galpin), also thrived as the river and coastal beds were raked for their bounty. Oystermen’s houses often featured design tweaks to accommodate the trade, including large basement doors wide enough to fit kegs of oysters through. It was quite common for family members at home to help with the shucking.

As it turns out, within their incredibly strong shells, oysters can be rather sensitive creatures. Seemingly minor disruptions can shock or kill even fully matured specimens. Typically born male, most become female after maturation. In the summer months, the oysters expel sperm and eggs on the chance that their reproductive materials will meet a match while floating in the water.

Noticing that the beds had become less bountiful due to unregulated harvesting, townsfolk starting in 1762 established and periodically renewed “Oyster Laws,” which prohibited raking during prime breeding months, from May to August. “Watchhouses,” or small huts on the coastline, were erected for men to guard the waters at night, and violators were subject to “a proportionate penalty of twenty shillings per bushel.” But the law was only enforced some of the time, and “always with a lenient hand” (Charles H. Levermore, The Republic of New Haven, 1886).

For this and other reasons, the Oyster Laws did little to help restore the health of New Haven’s favored bivalves. As detailed in Doris Townshend’s Fair Haven: A Journey Through Time (1976), by 1830, “the oyster beds were so impoverished” that “attention was given to the importation of oysters” for replenishing local beds and creating new man-made beds. Meanwhile, patches of the harbor floor from Fair Haven to City Point were cleaned of potential threats, including natural predators like starfish and oyster drills—bad for the overall ecosystem, but good for the oyster trade.

It once again flourished. The night before the start of each harvesting season came to host a kind of festival, attracting people, mostly men, from all over Connecticut to line up on the city’s shores, eager to wade in and pad their livelihoods. Naturalist Ernest Ingersoll’s account of “the annual oyster derby” is included in Townshend’s book, stating that before the bell had finished tolling, “the oyster-beds had been reached, tongs were scraping the long rested bottom and the season upon the Quinnipiac had begun.”

The enthusiasm and innovation surrounding the local enterprise continued. “Shipbuilding kept pace” with the oyster trade and, in 1848, James Goodsell of Fair Haven invented an oyster boat called the “sharpie.” Wide and long, with a curved back end and flat bottom, the sharpie became the boat of choice for oystermen in New England and “was a feather in the cap of Fair Haveners,” Townshend writes. To this day, there is a kind of shucking tool called the “New Haven oyster knife,” with a shape that seems to resemble the old sharpies.

New Haven’s harvest peaked in the early 1900s. There were hitches along the way, including lingering concerns resulting from a typhoid fever outbreak covered by the New York Times on November 20, 1894, which reported that the fever had been traced to specimens pulled from the increasingly polluted Quinnipiac. Eventually, industrialization’s toll on the harbor began to be felt in more direct and everyday terms, with runoff from factories, mills and housing developments rendering any potential harvests from New Haven Harbor unsafe.

Today, there are few firms oystering in the immediate area. The Oystering Life, a 2022 film by local documentarian Steve Hamm, highlights Norwalk-based Copps Island Oysters and its activities in New Haven. In August 2021, a report in the New Haven Independent paraphrased Norm Bloom, Copps Island’s founder, stating that roughly 80% of his company’s “market” comes from New Haven Harbor. Not long after, the paper reported official approvals for a planned expansion. But two years later, there’s no mention of New Haven sourcing on Copps Island’s website, even as the company touts oysters harvested off the coasts of Norwalk and Noank.

In the past decade, spanning the Quinnipiac River and the waters along Branford’s Stony Creek section, Thimble Island Ocean Farm and offshoot Greenwave have innovated sustainability-focused methods of cultivating oysters and kelp, which fed local markets in various ways. But it seems they’ve now shifted to a more global mission, aiming to train others in waters around the world to produce eco-friendly oysters, clams, mussels, scallops and superfood/biofuel seaweeds.

Could New Haveners and their waters be among them? The oyster has an up-and-down history in New Haven, but its next “up” might be just around the river bend.

Written by Jared Emerling. Image 1, featuring the mouth of the Mill River, photographed by Dan Mims. Image, featuring a dish of oysters at Shell & Bones, photographed by Sorrel Westbrook. This updated story was originally published on June 10, 2014.

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