Extent of Sandy’s impact on oysters still unknown

It’s likely to be another week before Connecticut’s oyster industry knows how hard it was hit by storm Sandy.

Shellfish beds were closed on Oct. 28, the day before Sandy struck and have yet to reopen, so oystermen have really not been able to survey their beds.

But Dave Carey, director of the Aquaculture Bureau of the state Agriculture Department, said the storm moved around a lot of sand, and oysters, which live on the floor of Long Island Sound, can get buried when that happens. But it’s too soon to assume there will a huge loss, he said.

“Oysters are really resilient animals,” Carey said. “They can really take a lot.”

Once those that are still alive start filtering water, the packed sand on top of them typically loosens up and the oysters are able to work back to the surface.  If the sand is too deep, they suffocate. Despite their resiliency, however, Carey suspects that many juvenile oysters have died.

“There’s going to be damage,” he said. “A certain percentage won’t make it. But is the whole crop gone? We don’t know yet.”

Leslie Miklovich, vice president of the family-owned Hillard Bloom Shellfish, one of the two largest shellfish operations in the state, said crews had transplanted oysters this week and did see some dead ones.

Additionally, “they can be pushed up onto the beach, pushed on to someone else’s grounds,” she said. “We haven’t gone to check it out yet.”

The state’s oyster industry was hit hard in 2011 by a combination of Tropical Storm Irene and large amounts of rain before it. Those events closed beds for six weeks because of sewage and other discharges. Carey said there was far less of that this time, but more coastal flooding that may have picked up pollutants.

He had hoped to begin water testing late this week, though that prospect may be delayed due to the nor’easter that blew in.

In the meantime James Markow, owner of the Noank-based Aeros Cultured Oyster, has been dealing with the total loss of one of his six boats and serious damage to another.

“The hard thing for us is having employees and not producing and everything else,” he said. “It really catches up with you quick. Real quick. Having to fix boats and spend money — that’s not what I was looking forward to doing.”

Markow figured his income was down about 20 percent in 2011 even without equipment losses and other costs. This year he tried to prevent a repeat by only planting two-thirds of his juvenile oysters, so he’d still have some to fall back on, but he won’t know how his plan worked until he can get out on the water. He expects 10 to 20 percent of the juveniles are gone.

“I’m just pretty glum right now,” he said. “I always hope for the best and expect for the worst. That’s the only way you can be a farmer.”