Friday, February 27, 2009

The Cost of Commercial Shellfishing Goes Up


If your local school district wants to increase your property taxes, it comes up with a new budget and asks residents to vote on it, up or down. If your town wants to increase your property taxes, it too makes a new budget and then holds a public hearing and votes on it, in public.

The state of Connecticut though can apparently increase the per-acre "tax" it charges oystermen by simply making a decision at the department level. In January, the Department of Agriculture's division of aquaculture, which regulates the shellfishing industry in Long Island Sound, raised the per-acre "tax" on shellfish beds from $30 to $200.

Shellfishermen are outraged. They say such a steep increase will put them out of business. The state says it needs the money to run the division that oversees oystering.

I hate to be so wishy-washy but this is clearly one of those situations where both sides are right. An increase of $170 per acre, essentially overnight, is a huge burden. My impression is that for the most part oystermen work hard and make an honest living but are hardly affluent. As Soundkeeper and State Legislator Terry Backer points out in this story, in the Stamford Advocate, any increase in costs to the oystermen will result in an increase in costs to the consumer, and since most of the consumers are restaurants, they will happily go out-of-state to buy cheaper oysters and clams.

But the Advocate also points out that the increase is the first since 1968. Oystermen and clammers paid $30 an acre for 40 years, so in some ways they've had the benefit of an extraordinarily friendly regulatory system. Clearly the head of the aquaculture division thinks the fees should have been raised more gradually over the years but that they weren't because of the influence of one big oyster company. Now he's trying to make things more equitable.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the $200 per acre isn't really a tax. The oystermen don't own the land they harvest oysters from -- the state does. They oyster beds are a public resource that the oystermen have exclusive rights to. Even if you think, as I do, that oystering is exactly the kind of compatible industry that Long Island Sound should have more of, it's still a privilege that should be paid for.

On top of all that, the state also is imposing a fee of $1 per bushel on shellfishermen, to help pay for the costs of inspecting the waters, to make sure typhoid-infused oysters aren't making it onto our tables.

Oystermen are pissed. On the other hand, businesses everywhere are making less money and cutting back. It may just be tough luck.

The photo, by the way, is of oyster sloops working Bridgeport Natural Bed, I think, although they might be working off the Rowaytown-Norwalk area -- I've never been sure.)

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