As concerned neighbors organize to prevent commercial clam digging in sleepy Short Beach cove, a new $1.6 million clamming boat, the Cultivator, continues to stir up both clams and controversy in the waters off Johnson’s Beach.
The Cultivator, a 50-by-20 foot state-of-the-art vessel, is owned by G&B Shellfish Farm in Stratford, which recently acquired the shellfish bed grant of a former operator whose daily operation was far less intense than G&B’s. The 1800s grant of oyster bed rights, which runs in perpetuity, is not a lease but a recorded town grant and is known as Lot 10.
The Cultivator (top photo) came into the area in and around the Short Beach cove in early summer and neighbors who live there report a far noisier, more intrusive, and frequent operation, one that has disrupted swimmers, surfers, kayakers, and, some say, a sailing school for kids as well as other recreational activities.
State Rep. Lonnie Reed, co-chair of the Energy and Technology Committee, stepped in at the request of neighbors and arranged for the state’s top agricultural and environmental officials to meet with the Short Beach group in September. State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr., chair of the Senate’s environment committee, attended the meeting as did G&B owner Gary Salce. Salce operates the Cultivator and maintains he does not go into the cove but residents say he has. They are pictured here with George E. Krivda, Jr., the Government Affairs Director for the Aquaculture Division.
Reed said in an interview yesterday that Salce recently informed her that “he no longer plans to clam in Short Beach on the weekends in the summer months which suggests that compromises are indeed possible.” She said he also said that as a sign of good faith “he purposely stopped harvesting the Lot 10 Bed for the final five weeks of summer, immediately following what I call our Short Beach Summit.”
One of the cove neighbors, Steve Mentz, outlined the changes in the waters of Johnson Beach in a letter to state officials: “The arrival of a new boat, the Cultivator, has produced an operation that is too much for our small Cove. The boat is bigger, louder, and more intrusive than we are used to. It fished our waters too often, working repeated long days during the high recreational season of July and August.” The boat operated on weekends last summer.
“It has worked too close to our beaches and recreational areas. There were inconsiderate encounters with young sailors and recreational fishermen. We are seriously concerned for the safety of swimmers, sailors, kayakers, and others who use this communal space.”
The cove is near to the Yale sailing club, where scores of youngsters learn to sail during the summer months.
David H. Carey, director of the Connecticut Bureau of Aquaculture, which is part of the Department of Agriculture and regulates commercial clam dredging, attended the meeting. Carey later wrote to the residents to say that the shell fishermen attending the meeting offered “to seek ways to reduce the level of noise and to attempt to avoid periods of high recreational traffic.” What the neighbors want is to keep the boat out of their area from May through October.
The Cultivator was back on the scene this past week, neighbors reported. While equipment exists to reduce the noise and that topic was, in fact, raised by Salce at the meeting with state officials, it appears the noise level has not diminished. Indeed in recent weeks it has intensified in part because Christmas and New Year’s are one of the busiest times of the year for the shellfish industry.
The cove area is viewed as a productive area for clam digging even though the waters off Johnson Beach are polluted. What this means that after shell fishermen churn up the clams, the clams are removed from the waters bordering Short Beach cove and transferred or relayed to Milford where they are cleaned before sold.
Carey has taken the position that both sides need to understand each other better. “The commercial operators have indicated that they will modify their activities in an attempt to lessen the concerns of the community.”
Robert LaFrance, a lawyer and director of governmental affairs for DEEP; Steven K. Reviczky, (at right) commissioner of the department of agriculture; and George E. Krivda, Jr., (pictured at left) chief of staff of the agricultural department attended the meeting. All said they came away with a new perspective and efforts are underway to work on the issues, Reed told the Eagle.
Carey told residents he would continue to offer assistance “in mediating and promoting a better understanding between the parties.”
Last week, Dr. Shirley McCarthy, a professor at Yale and one of the group’s leaders, sent Carey a note, saying, “the Cultivator has been here for at least the last week as well as today (Saturday) and as mentioned in our meeting: ‘very noisy.’” She asked about the noise mufflers.
So far he has not replied, she said.
State vs. Local Control
The state is trying to encourage clamming, especially because the lobster industry is dying in Long Island Sound while at the same time the clam population continues to grow in those waters. The town of Branford has no control over the land grants in existence since the 1800s, grants that may be outsourced, as the one in Short Beach was.
Meanwhile, in a separate action, legal questions have been raised about whether the Cultivator activity on the edge of the cove will morph into full blown harvesting in violation of a local ordinance that covers Short Beach and other beach communities in Branford, which has the longest shoreline area in the state.
RTM member Doug Hanlon (D-3rd) who represents Short Beach and lives near the cove, says that during a recent shellfish commission meeting people with commercial interests asked about when the Short Beach cove area would be open. He has sought to get First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove and Town Attorney Bill Aniskovich involved in the issue.
Hanlon cited section 88.8 of the Town Code that says “no lease, license or transfer of shell fishing grounds owned by the Town of Branford shall be permitted in the following in-shore areas.” The areas include the cove in Short Beach. The Shellfish Commission, Hanlon said, is skirting the ordinance by creating another term for a “lease, ‘a so-called co-management agreement.’”
So far the Short Beach cove is not under a co-management lease; the Cultivator is collecting clams under the grant, a grant that also provides a small tax revenue to the town of Branford.
A Letter to Cosgrove
In a letter to Cosgrove, Hanlon wrote: “I don’t want to be the one who tells the shoreline residents of Short Beach, Branford Harbor, Indian Neck, Linden Shores, Pine Orchard and Hotchkiss Grove that their collective millions of dollars in taxes and quality of life is being traded for a few hundred dollars in lease money to shell-fishermen who don’t even live in Branford. It’s really time to nip this in the bud before it starts costing the town a whole lot of money.”
Hanlon,(pictured) who teaches at Yale University, asked Cosgrove to consult with Aniskovich before the last Shellfish Commission meeting on Oct. 13 in order to insure that Branford ordinance 88-8 would be enforced, he said in an interview. On the day of the meeting he spoke directly to Cosgrove, pointing out “it’s been almost a month and we still have not heard anything back from the town attorney.” Cosgrove stated he would attend the meeting and elaborate on what he had learned from the town attorney.
Cosgrove did attend that meeting. Aniskovich did not and has yet to respond directly to Hanlon’s concerns, but Cosgrove explained that Aniskovich indicated he couldn’t render an opinion on the legality of “co-management” agreements until he sees one. The next shellfish committee meeting is on Nov.10.
Tony Pulcinella, chairman of the Shellfish Commission, said at the October meeting, “We need to have this question answered. That is why I want to sit down with our counsel.”
The ordinance also provides that no lease, license or transfer of shellfishing grounds owned by the town of Branford should be permitted without the approval of the Board of Selectmen and possibly the Representative Town Meeting.
Hanlon believes that the Shellfish Commission is again trying to skirt the town ordinance barring commercial shell fishing as they had 5 years ago, by devising a new term for a lease, a so-called “co-management agreement.” “What we want from the town attorney is simple confirmation that any “lease or transfer,” no matter what you term it, will be treated as illegal and our shoreline will be protected,” he said.
In 2010, Hanlon stood before the RTM to say the Shellfish Commission had done an end-run around the ordinance, failing to consult the Board of Selectmen or the RTM.
Then RTM member Alinor Sterling, who is an attorney and at the time represented the Short Beach area, drew up an emergency resolution after Hanlon spoke that night. It read: “Resolved that the Representative Town Meeting of the Town of Branford disapproves any lease proposed by the Branford Shellfish Commission in areas prohibited for leasing by Code Section 88.8 A-D, and further we direct Town Counsel to take immediate action to enforce this resolution.” Republican Peter Black, who represents Short Beach, joined the resolution and had harsh words for the shellfish commission. Click here to read the story.
Attorney Bill Clendenen, the former town attorney, stepped in. Now Hanlon believes the commission is at it again.
At the commission’s October meeting Barry Beletsky, president of the Civic Association of Short Beach, said he was concerned about so-called co-management agreements that the Shellfish Commission enters into with various companies.
Afterwards Beletsky, an attorney, told the Eagle that he saw no difference between a “co-management agreement and a lease.” Beleskey added, “This is an issue that is going to be addressed.”
At that meeting one woman announced she had “dibs” on the Short Beach cove when it became available. She said the commission previously promised she was first in line once the cove was opened up. When Hanlon pointed out to her that shell fishing was prohibited there by town ordinance she said that she wouldn’t be leasing the beds but co-managing them, which was legal.
That night the Shellfish Commission also authorized a “co-management” agreement with a shell fisherman who, Hanlon said, walked out of the audience and asked for it. The site was right off of Indian Neck point and “the agreement was voted on and approved without it being on their agenda,” Hanlon said, adding this type of conduct may well have legal repercussions.
Cosgrove, who wasn’t at that September member but attended in October, told the Eagle afterwards that Aniskovich needed to study a proposed co-management agreement and had not yet done so.
A New Approach
Meanwhile, Mentz, Sterling (who is his wife), and a group of neighbors skilled in the area of law, environment, and marine biology, are seeking other ways to protect their cove. They are calling themselves “Short Beachers for a Safe and Healthy Sound.”
One neighbor, Susan Bryson, who has lived facing the cove for 32 years, is now examining maps, along with state and local shell fishing laws. She is an attorney. She described the Cultivator operation as large, noisy, and disruptive. In addition it leaves the waters muddy. Another neighbor, Maggie Wheeler, a biologist has researched the effects of clam dredging.
In a letter to state officials, Mentz, who is an English professor, said, “We believe commercial shell fishing in the Inner Cove should be restricted or discontinued. We do not propose restricting activity on the remaining 2/3 of the “outer” Lot, which is less enclosed with greater water dispersal.”
Mentz suggested two options: One was to split the cove into two sections, an inner and an outer cove.
“We could seek new management for the Inner Cove by a body not primarily dedicated to commercial fishing. Possibilities include the Branford Land Trust, the Town of Branford, or the Short Beach Civic Association.” Kennedy, who is the chair of the senate environment committee, raised the question of whether a town or local group could purchase the rights.
Mentz said in his letter to state officials, “The Inner Cove could be restricted to months when recreational use is less frequent. We propose no fishing in the Inner Cove during the warmer half of the year, from May through October. No restrictions would be in place in the Inner Cove from November to April, and no restrictions would be in place in the Outer Cove at any time, beyond those currently in place through the Dept. of Agriculture and the DEEP.”
How to accomplish this goal remains unclear because the lines of authority are legally complicated and the state’s interest is to grow the shellfish industry.
Carey says the state’s position is to encourage both sides to better understand each other.
“The commercial operators have indicated that they will modify their activities in an attempt to lessen the concerns of the community.” And Carey said he would continue to offer assistance “in mediating and promoting a better understanding between the parties.”
The meeting attended by the state’s top agricultural officials was unusual. Rarely do state officials get to discuss the daily issues of the sea from the perspective of the property owners who pay high taxes to live near the shoreline and have a commitment to its environment.
Reed said she is communicating “with all of the stake holders (including the Department of Aquaculture and DEEP) and was optimistic that “the situation involving clamming Lot 10 can continue to be fine-tuned. Salce, the boat’s owner and operator, says he has high hopes for a good working relationship with the Civic Association of Short Beach,” she said.
She agreed that unresolved concerns “certainly remain, but that meeting has already produced some encouraging results…. We all need to keep talking and working together, but things seem to be moving in a more hopeful direction.”