Oyster Farmers Take Stock Of Sandy's Damage

underwater beds took a beating

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Norman Bloom on his way to assess the storm's damage
Photo:Jeff Cohen/WNPR
Norman Bloom Loos On
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Jimmy Bloom At The Helm
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Jimmy Bloom Sifts Through Oysters
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Jeff Cohen/WNPR
Oysters and Sandy
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Oysters and Sandy

 

Governor Dannel Malloy wrapped up a post Hurricane Sandy news briefing earlier this week by talking about sewage discharges into Long Island Sound.  And he said that no one should eat the clams or oysters.  That caught the attention of WNPR's Jeff Cohen, who decided to catch up with oyster fishermen as they surveyed the storm's damage.
 
Yes, the state has put a temporary stop to oyster farming because of water quality concerns.  But here's a couple caveats.  First, these stoppages happen frequently, mostly because of heavy rains, and they're eventually lifted.  Second, you can eat oysters if they're for sale at your market.  It's just that no new oysters will be going to market until the state says the water is safe.
 
But Hurricane Sandy may have had a far more lasting impact on the oyster's fragile underwater habitat.  To understand that, I went to Norwalk to take a ride into Long Island Sound. I started on a small transport boat.
 
"I'm Norm Bloom.  I'm the owner of Norm Bloom and Son. And right now we're headed out the east channel, we're going to the Oyster Boat Grace P. Lowndes where he's surveying the damage from the hurricane."
 
Bloom and his son Jimmy run the business.  It's a big operation, with about 50 employees, 10 big oyster boats, and about 2,000 underwater acres of oysters in the sound. 
 
Norman Bloom:  We use cages, which is like a rake in a basket, which will drop down to the bottom.  We'll tow it along, and we pick it up and we see what goes in the dredge.  We dump that on deck and we look at it.  You know, if the storm hit it, you'll see the shells will be all polished or the oysters could be gapped.  So it would be nothing to lose 80 to 90 percent of your oysters.
 
Cohen: Do you think that's possible?
 
Norman Bloom:  Oh, yeah, that's possible.  Irene was real devastating to us. We were shut down probably five weeks. We weren't allowed to come out and even work. And trying to keep your crew going and payroll going, it's hard.
 
After about 15 minutes, we make it to the Grace P. Lowndes -- one of Norman Bloom's oyster boats.  Jimmy and another worker are there.  But no other oyster farmers are in the water.
 
Norman Bloom:  You the only one out here, Jimmy?
 
We step up into the wheel house.  Jimmy steers the boat while Norman looks on. 
 
Norman Bloom:  The shell fisherman on the sound, we look forward to the Christmas holiday.  That's kind of when we make our money.  To have this hit just before it, it's gonna really devastate a lot of companies.
 
As we talk, a crane is pulling up a cage. It comes out of the water...and then it dumps its disappointing haul on the deck.  Jimmy goes down and takes a look.
 
Jimmy Bloom:  You can see how these shells are all polished clean?  That's from the tumbling and the sand and obviously they're all dead and they're open and there's no meats inside.  A few oysters survived, but this is a very small percentage of what should be there.
 
One way to tell the difference -- if you run your boot through a pile of healthy oysters, it sounds like heavy rocks knocking on heavy rocks.  Now, it just sounds different.  It sounds hollow.
 
Jimmy Bloom:  We just pick up the pieces, start sorting the mess out, and move on.  Take it from there.  Not much you can do about it, you just go to work the next day.
 
Norman Bloom:  I mean, you're back into that whole cleaning part again.  To put out so many bags a day you're going to have to work ten times as hard.  You have to try to hang onto your customer base no matter what the cost is.
 
Cohen:  Does that mean your price goes up?
 
Norman Bloom:  We wish. No, you pretty much stay in the market and compete against other states and other shell fisherman.  You live at what market price you can get...So where we thought we were going to have a nice easy winter, we're back to work again.
 
And they're not the only ones.  As they motor back to Norwalk, they see everything from a torn-apart island home to a wave-ravaged lighthouse to sport boats that had been tossed around.  It's clear Sandy has left her mark -- both underwater and on shore.
 
For WNPR, I'm Jeff Cohen.