Mill River, New Haven

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 tribe’s diet when Puritan settlers arrived in 1638, the hard-shelled bivalve became an integral part of the fledgling colony. According to Virginia Galpin’s comprehensive history New Haven’s Oyster Industry, 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 marbled grey-ish 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 (often outside of Connecticut altogether) and are typically priced at over $2 apiece. However, explains Galpin, “New Haven Harbor is”—all else being equal—“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 (the coastal edge of The Hill).

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New Haven’s first oystermen harvested naturally occurring 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 reports, 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, despite their incredibly tough outer shells, oysters can be rather sensitive creatures. Seemingly minor disruptions can shock or kill even fully matured specimens. Born male, each becomes female after maturation before returning to male in later adulthood. 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, starting in 1762, townsfolk established and periodically renewed “Oyster Laws,” which prohibited raking during those 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).

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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 a new kind of 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 wrote. 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 inedible.

Today, there are few firms left oystering in the immediate area, but one in particular is inspiring a great deal of hope: Thimble Island Ocean Farm, which has innovated a sustainable “3D” cultivation method by creating mini-ecosystems out of metal caging stacked vertically underwater. Located off the coast of Branford’s Stony Creek section, the company is producing healthy oysters, clams, mussels, scallops and superfood/biofuel seaweeds, simultaneously attracting natural species—150 of them, reportedly, including crabs and starfish—back into the local environment.

Could the same approach be applied to New Haven’s harbor, and to the waterways that feed it? 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. Photograph, depicting the mouth of the Mill River, by Dan Mims. This story originally published on June 10, 2014.

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