CT Sea Grant Supports Shellfish Industry During Pandemic and Beyond

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When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to a halt in March 2020, the Connecticut Sea Grant team helped get Connecticut shellfish crews back to work and diversify their operations to adapt to the challenges without previous.

The pandemic restaurant closures have had a massive impact on Shellfish, as nearly all of their business comes from selling fresh shellfish directly to restaurants.

“Their businesses were shut down overnight,” said Tessa Getchis, senior extension educator at Connecticut Sea Grant. “The industry was in crisis mode.”

According to data collected by Connecticut Sea Grant, in the first weeks of the pandemic, Connecticut’s 51 businesses lost 93% of their revenue.

Prior to the pandemic, Connecticut Sea Grant was working on developing guidelines and regulations for shellfish for direct-to-consumer sale with the Connecticut Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture.

When COVID-19 hit, both agencies were able to accelerate the rollout of these guidelines. This has allowed shellfish farmers to diversify their activities. Connecticut was the first state in the northeast to allow shellfish to be sold directly to consumers during the pandemic.

“For years we’ve developed these relationships, for years we’ve developed these forward-looking plans,” said Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant.

A sign advertises fresh shellfish, kept cold in one of the refrigeration units provided with NOAA funding. (Kim Granbery)

A grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enabled Sea Grant to purchase nine portable refrigeration units. Shellfish farmers could store their goods in these units and take them to farmers’ markets, for example, or set them up on their docks to keep food at safe temperatures.

As the pandemic subsided and restaurants reopened, in addition to reselling to restaurants, many shellfish continued to sell directly to consumers.

“It’s exciting to see people completely change their business model,” says Getchis. “A small grant can make a big difference.”

Connecticut Sea Grant and the Bureau also worked together to obtain funding from the National Sea Grant Program and the NOAA CARES Act to employ shellfish harvesting crews to restore damaged oyster beds. Shellfish fishing teams are specially trained to catch shellfish; these same skills have enabled them to restore the beds on which they depend.

“They depend on the beds,” Getchis says. “So they were very motivated to do the restoration work. They see the interest in improving them, in restoring them.

The beds along the Connecticut coast, where oysters breed and grow, provide vital habitat for baby oysters as well as many other marine plants and animals. They also help filter water, improve its clarity and quality, and prevent shoreline erosion.

Staff from the Bureau of Aquaculture shell bag for this year’s oyster bed restoration effort. (Tessa Getchis)

In recent storms, some of these beds have been buried in river sediments smothering the oysters.

Shellfish harvesting teams worked to uncover the beds and replenish them with healthy adult oysters and oyster shells, which baby oysters often attach to as they develop their own.

So far, this effort has restored over 1,800 acres of oyster beds.

Getchis says Connecticut Sea Grant recently secured additional funding to continue this work using a more organized approach to determining the most effective way to restore the beds. Industrial partners and divers from the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Milford Laboratory will collaborate on the project.

Connecticut Sea Grant researchers collected data on the economic impact of the pandemic on shellfish to help inform national emergency relief measures. The Connecticut Sea Grant team also helped shellfish farmers navigate federal funding applications during the pandemic.

In the first year of the pandemic, the funding supported 33 businesses in the state. Over the next few years, their work will benefit all 51.

Sea Grant was uniquely positioned to help the industry given its pre-existing relationships with community and state agencies, De Guise says.

“Being present in the community and listening in a non-regulatory, non-militant way is very important to building trust in the program,” says De Guise.

This work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Sea Grant Office, NOAA CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security), USDA CARES Act, and CT CARES Act.

The Connecticut Sea Grant College Program (CTSG) is part of the National Sea Grant College Program network, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). CTSG is based at UConn’s Avery Point campus in Groton, and several staff members have academic appointments at the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, including UConn Extension. For more than 30 years, CTSG has worked to promote the wise use and conservation of coastal and marine resources in Long Island Sound and beyond through research, outreach, and education. This is science at the service of the coast!

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