The Connecticut Oyster's Comeback

Noank Oysters

I’m not really sure when I started eating oysters, but it seems to me it was about the same time I met my husband, some 22 years ago. They really are an acquired taste (oysters – not my husband) – pretty hardcore, if you ask me – but once you’re hooked, they truly are hard to resist (that could also describe my husband) and you find yourself ordering them whenever they pop up on the menu. At least, that’s how it is for me.

We oyster-lovers know, however, that not all of these mouthwatering mollusks are created equal. In fact, some are downright inferior, and should land in the fryolator, not be featured at the raw bar.  Yet, even restaurants that have “oyster” in their name insist on serving up substandard shellfish – really surprising when you consider that Connecticut grows one of the finest oysters in the world in the waters of Long Island sound.  It’s the prized Noank oyster, also known as the “Mystic Oyster,” grown off the shores of towns east of Branford.  A dozen years ago,  it was destined for extinction after two parasites nearly wiped out the state’s entire oyster crop.

In 1997 and 1998, Dermo and MSX disease destroyed 90-percent of  Connecticut’s oysters. The only way oyster farmers could save the industry was to grow their own disease-resistant seedlings in off-shore hatcheries, then plant those seedlings in the Sound. A practice in sustainable fishing that’s still underway today.  Oysters are then harvested after a 2-year cultivation period: That’s how long it takes to grow a standard 3-inch oyster  in Connecticut’s chilly waters. “It’s farming…only underwater,” says Jim Markow, head of the Noank Aquaculture Co-op. But it’s “extreme” farming since it takes place on a boat – even in the dead of winter. Markow runs the Noank hatchery which is located  on Long Island. He sells his seedlings to smaller oyster farmers, as well as several shoreline towns in Eastern Connecticut.  All told, he’s responsible for planting 20-million seedlings in the Sound every year. “It’s painful. It’s a lot of work,” adds Markow in what could be the understatement of the year, but it guarantees that oysters will continue to be a sustainable source of seafood in Connecticut.

Not to mention that the pay-off is profound. This sustainable method of farming at sea is starting to net a return on investment. Markow reports that oyster fishermen in his neck of the woods are seeing “natural recruitment” – that’s  where oysters are starting to grow back naturally. That means his hatchery is helping to restore the native oyster population and replenish other forms of marine life, as well.  “It feels good to see that you’re able to make something work where it wasn’t working before,” says Markow.

This is also happening on the other side of the state, in the Norwalk and Greenwich area, where the famed Bluepoints abound. This region really puts Connecticut on the map when it comes to oyster production. Did you know that The Nutmeg State is home to the most valuable oyster crop in the nation? And that it’s second only to the state of Louisiana in terms of oyster production??? But there’s a BIG difference between Connecticut oysters and what Louisiana is serving up: Connecticut oysters are typically sold live and end up in raw bars while Louisiana basically shucks and cans theirs. That explains the difference in value and, more importantly, taste!

Connecticut’s Noank oysters are, without a doubt, the most delicious oysters I’ve ever eaten. I’m told that’s because of the cool temperatures and super salinity of Long Island Sound. And of course, some superior farming techniques. All of these oysters are also hand-selected before they are shipped off to market – the ultimate in quality control. And because of the sustainable way in which they are farmed in this state, they are truly considered a “green seafood.”

As one of the perks of my job, I went home with a bag of these prized oysters and ate them all in one sitting. They put those Washington Little Creeks on the menu of that West Hartford oyster bar to shame.  I am happy to report that the Noank’s are featured today on that very menu! Big relief…

One other little gem about the mighty oyster: It’s a filter-feeder which means it removes nitrogen from the water. Too much nitrogen in the water throws off the balance of an ecosystem and can be harmful to marine life. One oyster cleanses 50 gallons of water a day! According to Gary Wikkfors at the National Marine Fisheries Service, “The magic of oysters and other shellfish in this process is that they transform the “pollutant” nitrogen into the “nutrient” protein.” Another reason why it’s considered a “green seafood.” I’d say that’s the true “pearl” found in every one of these amazing crustaceans.

You can learn more about Jim Markow and his premium  Noank oyster by watching my Treading Lightly segment that airs on Connecticut Public TV’s All Things Connecticut. And you can order up your own Noank oysters at Grossman’s Seafood in the Groton area, as well as The Oyster Club in Mystic.

Bon Apetit!

Christina DeFranco

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