Darien's best kept secret: shellfishing

It’s well-known that the town of Darien loves, and makes strong use of, its access to the water. Plenty of shoreline, and a number of private and public clubs and beach associations along that shoreline, provide a fun destination for families in the summer months. There also is, of course, the veritable armada of boats that belong to Darien residents. It’s safe to say that just about any activity that has to do with being in or around the water is a popular one in Darien. There is, however, an exception.

Shellfishing is an activity that, for whatever reason, is exceptionally unpopular in Darien. The State Department of Health issues about 40 shellfishing licenses to the area each year, with only 20 of those going to Darien and the other 20 going to Stamford. By comparison, Westport has about 1,000 licenses issued annually. The license costs just $20 for the year.

David Kahn, of the Advisory Commission on Coastal Waters, invited The Darien Times out for a ride and some shellfishing this week, along with Kristin DeRosia-Banick from the Bureau of Aquaculture of the State Department of Agriculture. Kahn grew up locally, and vacationed to Block Island as a child and began shellfishing then.

“I think it’s one of Darien’s great secrets,” said Kahn.

There was not  one other boat while out on a beautiful morning. The trip left from Darien Boat Club, and followed the coast. The boat  passed Long Neck East Bed near Ziegler’s Cove, until we reached Scott Cove. Two beds there, Great Island Bed and Contentment Bed, were to be where we did some shellfishing.

Kahn climbed into the knee deep water at Great Island Bed, put his rake in the water, and within a few pulls came up with over a dozen clams, including some very sought after Little Necks. “Little necks are most desirable. They take a long time to mature, and we are actually seeing less now,” said DeRosia-Banick. Of course, Little Neck clams can be ordered at local restaurants for $1.25 each. A commercial shellfishing license only costs five more dollars than an order of a dozen clams at a local restaurant.

“You have to keep everything you find. I love to take them home and throw them on the grill,” said Kahn. There are standards that must be met as far as the size of the clam as well.

Kahn recently went out with a commercial fisherman to help seed some of the local beds.

“The hope is that they're happy here and they start reproducing,” said DeRosia-Banick.

It is still surprising just how few people in Darien go shellfishing, they said.

“It just feels like such a missed opportunity,” Kahn said.

“I love coming out here with my kids. But we’ll come out on the weekend and literally see no one,” Kahn added. Kahn said his kids have fun splashing around the the shallow water, but occasionally joining in doing some clamming of their own.

“This is one of the most beautiful spots in Darien,” said DeRosia-Banick and we cruised around the cove, “and it’s such a great activity for families.”

Some beds in the area remain open and approved all the time, while others are conditionally opened.

“A conditionally opened bed will close after just a half inch of rain,” said DeRosia-Banick. In order to reopen those beds, samples need to be collected to insure that water quality is up to state standards. In larger markets like Westport and Norwalk, where the state leases a large amount of beds and space, state officials will come and take the samples themselves.

“In places that are primarily recreational use, without much space leased to state, we rely on local people to collect samples and send them in so we can reopen,” said DeRosia-Banick, who pointed to Greenwich as an example of a market that is primarily recreational but is very active in sample collection to keep their beds open.

The commercial shellfishing industry in Connecticut is a $30 million dollar per year business. Annually Connecticut shellfish harvests exceed 450,000 bushels of hard clams and 200,000 of bushels oysters according to the Department of Agriculture. The town of Darien is owed 50 bushels of clams annually for the space it leases to commercial shellfishermen.

First Selectman Jayme Stevenson spoke about reaching this point as well, saying, “Several years ago I asked for the assistance of the Advisory Commission on Coastal Waters regarding the issuance of commercial shell fishing permits,” adding, “The members of the Advisory Commission embraced this role and have been very active in learning the commercial and residential shell fishing rules and opportunities. David Kahn has taken a particular interest and has been a tremendous help to me as has our town council legal team.”

Recently, Eagle Scout candidate Holm Roeser of Troop 53 completed a project at Darien Boat Club. Roeser worked with the Advisory Commission on Coastal Waters to create and install signs at Pear Tree Point Beach Park describing the recreational shellfishing program in Darien. The signs were installed near the entrance to the Darien Boat Club and the boat ramp.

“Since the signs have been here I’ve seen more people stopping to look,” said Kahn, who added that most people read the signs and look shocked to even find out that shellfishing in the area was a possibility. Stevenson also spoke about the role played by volunteers and the people of Darien, saying, “One of Darien’s most cherished qualities is our proximity to the Long Island Sound and all it offers including shell fishing for business and recreation.  Having a group of volunteers interested in informing the public about shell fishing is yet another valuable role our town volunteers play.” The hope is that Kahn’s efforts, and the efforts of the community, will help grow the recreational shellfishing world in Darien.