This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part III

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This chapter detailed the oyster industry in Long Island Sound.  Again we see the pattern of identifying a profitable natural resource, exploiting that resource to depletion where it’s almost entirely wiped out, and then identifying the need to act to save this natural resource.  The descriptions of opening day for oystering season were very interesting.  I can imagine people waiting on the banks in Fair Haven until they heard the midnight chimes of the church bells, then clambering into their boats and fighting for a good spot to go dig oysters.  I never knew that oysters could be kept through the winter in a basement, and now I envision root cellars filled with bushel baskets of shellfish, topped with seaweed, helping to sustain the family through the long winter.  It makes sense that people would exploit this resource on one day to collect food for the entire winter, but it’s unfair to blame their one day gathering for the ultimate depletion of wild oysters. 

The professional oystermen did their own fair share of depletion: “In 1856, another firm, Levi Rowe & Co., owned twenty vessels, employed one hundred openers, and shipped one hundred and fifty thousand gallons of oysters.  Other houses shipped as many as fifteen hundred bushels of oysters a day.  When the New Haven train left each afternoon for the interior of New England, one and sometimes two cars were reserved solely for oysters.”  The oystermen realized that this was not a sustainable operation and began to gather seed oysters from surrounding rivers in 1810, and traveling as far as Chesapeake Bay.  My grandfather tells stories of his father’s uncle buying $10,000 worth of seed oysters.  He didn’t pay the $10,000 for insurance, and the seed oysters disappeared.  As you can imagine, a $10,000 loss for a farmer was quite a hit, and the oyster idea was dropped.  I’ve seen seed oysters, since my husband’s family has an aquaculture business; they’re about the size of your thumbnail, and look like tiny oysters.  It’s very interesting how they’re raised now, and I would have liked if the book gave more detail about how they were raised in the early 1800’s.

            The final part of this chapter that I’d like to touch upon is disease transmission.  I didn’t realize that oysters can transmit both bacteria and viruses, but it makes sense since they are filter-feeders.  The story of Wesleyan University students contracting typhoid fever in 1892 by eating contaminated oysters demonstrates how important it is to not allow raw sewage to flow into waterways.  Unfortunately, raw sewage still flows into the Sound everyday, but the shellfishing industry is more closely monitored and closed when concerns for human health arise.

Sprawling Suburbs

            This chapter details how the lifestyles of people around the Sound changed moving into the beginning of the 20th Century.  People worked in cities, yet wanted to live in the country, and the availability of transportation allowed them to do so.  Thus, housing developments sprawled out of the cities into the country and the suburbs were born.  “More land was built on between 1960 and 1990—houses, shopping malls, corporate headquarters, highways—than during the previous three hundred years.”  All this development had many environmental trade-offs: “The decades of growth almost tripled the amount of sewage flowing into the Sound from treatment plants… from twenty-five million to sixty-five million gallons a day.”  All this sewage resulted in extremely large amounts of nitrogen dumping into the Sound, much more than the Sound had ever experienced before.  Sediments also became a problem, as did fertilizers used on agricultural land.  All this nitrogen contributes to the acidification of aquatic ecosystem, with impacts on the food chain.  This process of continued nitrogen accumulation in the Sound, called eutrophication, can lead to blooms of microscopic algae, their wastes making the waters toxic and poisoning people who consume fish or shellfish from the contaminated waters.  As Anderson points out, nitrogen is “the element that is both the symbol and the result of modern society’s divorce from the natural processes that nurture the Earth—a divorce that has brought Long Island Sound to the brink of disaster.”  I’m left wondering what’s better for the environment, sewers or septic systems? Anderson briefly touches upon septic systems, but I really would like more information.  I wonder if houses on the shore would be better served by septic systems using the best technology available, as we did when we installed our septic system less than two years ago.  As I understand it, that nitrogen is filtered out into the soil and doesn’t reach the groundwater, but I’m not sure if that would be the case along the immediate shoreline where the water table is higher. 

            Both chapters demonstrate the need for wastewater treatment, for the health of both the Sound and human health.  In hard times, wastewater treatment becomes one of the items cut from many budgets, so I wouldn’t expect to see any of these problems resolved in the near future.



Filed under Local Agriculture, Outside, Review, Sustainable Living

4 responses to “This Fine Piece of Water: Reflections Part III

  1. This is an interesting article, Abbie (as were the others in this series). I’ve only had oysters once in my life, and know nothing about their culture or harvest, although I knew they were filter feeders and important for the ecosystem in that way. Thanks for the info!
    The figures about the suburban growth are pretty scary. Here, of course, the issue is building on and paving over some of the very best soil in the world. Locally there is a strong movement toward “infilling” our community, rather continuing to expand the geographical footprint of our town.

  2. Jon

    Ok two questions… first, how many oysters could $10,000 buy in your grandfather’s father’s uncle’s time? second, where does raw sewage flow into the sound everyday? I understand that once in a while something happens and the treatment plants can’t keep up, but every day? come on.

  3. Joyce- there’s been a lot of talk here about returning abandoned sites to homes/businesses rather than using pristine ones. And yes, I think the soil should be conserved in your area!

    Jon- First, I don’t know. Ask pa. Second, it’s not all raw. It’s treated and raw, but raw sewage flows into the sound each day it rains. And treated sewage still has nitrogen in it and can have bacteria as well (say if the UV bulbs need to be replaced).

  4. Abbie,

    What interesting commentary! Thanks for sharing this.

    It is hard to believe that someone in your grandfather’s great-uncle’s day would spend–and lose–$10,000 on seed oysters. This is an incredible story that we need to hear more about!

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