Can you judge a person’s commitment to clean water by his willingness to eat shellfish that have just been dredged from the bottom of Long Island Sound and dumped onto a steel table?
The steel table happened to be on the foredeck of the S.W. Sheppard, an oyster boat owned by the Norm Bloom & Son shellfish company. It was circling over arguably the richest oyster grounds on Long Island Sound this morning, between the mouth of Norwalk Harbor and the Norwalk Islands, on a trip arranged by Soundkeeper Terry Backer for three of his colleagues in the Connecticut General Assembly and a handful of reporters.
Terry was trying to drum up support for the Clean Water Fund, which Connecticut legislators have scandalously neglected in recent years, forcing the state Department of Environmental Protection to all but end Connecticut’s part in the Sound cleanup. Terry’s plan seemed to work. The three other politicians there (Bill Finch and Bob Duff, both Senators, and Chris Perone, a Representative) proclaimed their steadfast support for putting more money into the Clean Water Fund – in fact, they formed an impromptu “Oyster Shell Caucus” and said they’d work to get $70 million in the fund, which is about $20 million more than the Assembly put in before it stopped putting money in a few years ago.
I’ve known Terry for 20 years but I had never met the other three before today. Duff apparently didn’t care for raw shellfish straight from the Sound; if Perone tried any, he did so discreetly. Finch loved them, and I couldn’t help but note that to my ears at least his new-found support for the Clean Water Fund seemed strongest. Not that Duff and Perone didn’t pledge allegiance to a higher funding level. They did. But if the way to a man’s vote and political support is through his gustatory senses, Backer earned a firm commitment from Finch.
We started by boarding the Sheppard, which was wedged in next to the new Norm Bloom & Son building, fresh and clean and structurally sound, which distinguishes it from the oyster house it replaced, a relic that was so old the floors and ceilings slipped away from the walls at alarming angles. We were all standing around a big steel table on the foredeck. Toward the bow there were stacks of yellow, blue and red plastic-net bags crammed with clams – maybe a hundred bags in all, labeled “Norm Bloom & Son Oysters and Clams. Connecticut Grown. Keep Refrigerated 38 degrees F to 40 degrees F.”
Backer started by talking about the Sound’s hypoxia problem and about the importance of the Clean Water Fund. Communities need state money – grants and low interest loans – to upgrade sewage plants, so they can install the technology to remove nitrogen from wastewater, nitrogen being the nutrient that starts the annual summertime drop in dissolved oxygen levels. Finch said Backer worked hard to educate the Assembly but nevertheless there were two years when the Clean Water Fund got no money at all.
“We’ve gotten very lazy,” Finch said. “You’ve got to stick to the plan and not vary. … We want this to be one of the highest priorities of the Assembly bonding next year.”
The boat eased away from the dock and down the river toward the Sound and the blue haze that covered it. Near the islands, Bloom instructed his crew to lower the oyster dredge, which lay on the boat’s starboard side (at least I think that was the starboard side). It scooped up a manageable number of oysters and dropped them gently onto the steel table, to avoid slopping up the nice clothes of the politicians and reporters.
The truth is, as the oysters lay there, brown with algae – a good sign, Backer said; indicative of a hard bottom, added Bloom – stuck together in clusters, with spat and a crustacean I didn’t recognize fastening themselves to the shells, the oysters didn’t look all that appetizing. So when Norm Bloom got a knife and began opening and offering, I detected a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
But Bill Finch took the first one, ate it, and looked rapturous. (The picture to the left, by the way, shows Perone, a cameraman from Channel 12, Bloom, Backer and Duff; Finch is the fellow in the red hat, in the photo above.) Bloom handed the next one to me. I was a bit fastidious about putting the dirty shell to my mouth so I loosened the meat with my finger and slurped it. It was sweet and mild and salty, really good. I ate another later; Perone might have eaten a couple, the Norwalk Hour reporter ate one (I think) but the Channel 12 reporter and the Stamford Advocate reporter declined, the former with a look on her face that said, ‘Sorry, I don’t eat food that’s still alive.’
But Finch set the pace, eating them as Bloom or Backer handed them to him. They seemed to inspire him. So when Backer said that until recently, Connecticut had been the leader in the Sound cleanup, Finch responded, “We’ve broken a promise and we’ve broken a tradition. People say, ‘Oh it’s a lot of money.’ It’s not a lot of money for clean water. It’s been a long standing tradition that we broke.”
He ate some more. I don’t say this to mock him, even slightly. I admired his obvious delight, and he continued to say all the right things about the Sound. And he's not an insignificant Senator; in fact he's chairman of the environment committee. One might ask where he's been for the last few years on this issue (although no one on the boat did), especially considering that he represents Bridgeport, which happens to be on the Sound, and which, as a poor city, needs the state money. The Soundkeeper shouldn't have to work too hard to get his support. Nevertheless, as of this morning, his commitment to the Sound seemed to be solid -- and directly proportional to his enjoyment of the oysters.
“If we come out of next session,” he said, “without a good amount of money for clean water, then we’re going to have had a session that’s not successful.”
The four politicians then stood together and pledged to work to put $70 million in the Clean Water Fund. Backer was beaming. He knew there was no direct connection between oysters and hypoxia – he even said as much. But there is a connection between oysters and clean water, and since the Clean Water Fund is used for projects other than nitrogen removal, the link was legitimate.
Was it Terry’s idea to actually serve oysters on board or was it Norm Bloom’s brilliant idea? No clue. But Terry successfully employed Norm Bloom, a beautiful morning on the Sound, and a small pile of Crassosteria virginica
not only to get his colleagues’ commitment but to get it recorded in the press.
He still needs more votes, and the issue needs more attention. But for anyone else in Hartford who needs to be convinced, there are plenty of oysters left.