Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Diving Ducks and Oyster Beds

The mouth of the Housatonic River and the stretch of Long Island Sound immediately to the east and west is one of the richest natural spawning areas for oysters not only in the Sound but probably in the northeast.

Oysters that spawn in the Housatonic populate the mouth of the river, and currents sweep oyster larvae around Stratford Point, where they settle out on Bridgeport Natural Bed, a four-square mile area from Point No Point to Black Rock that is so important to the Sound’s oystermen that state regulators allow oyster boats to use hand-powered dredges only, so as not to damage the beds with power dredges.

I visited Stratford Point today to learn about Connecticut Audubon Society’s habitat restoration project there, and in the course of an hour’s conversation with Scott Kruitbosch, Connecticut Audubon’s conservation technician, some interesting speculation about the Housatonic oyster beds emerged.

Last year at this time, Scott told me, there were “massive” numbers of diving ducks on the mouth of the river. Greater and Lesser Scaup. White-winged Scoters and Surf Scoters, maybe Black Scoters, as well as Redheads and King Eider.

This year, nothing. The protected cove to the north has plenty of dabblers -- American Wigeon, Black Ducks, Gadwall -- but the diving ducks are not around.

The diet of diving ducks includes small oysters. The speculation by Connecticut Audubon’s conservation staff -- a guess, really -- is that something happened to the oyster beds. And the further speculation is that what happened was Hurricane Irene.

Numerous oystermen reported in September that the storm had damaged their equipment and smothered their oyster beds with sand and mud. Historically, the infamous hurricane of 1938 did so much damage -- wrecking oyster boats and oyster beds -- that it almost wiped out the Sound’s oyster industry. It took two decades for it to recover.

I haven’t seen a full assessment of the damage that Irene did to the Sound’s oysters. But if the lack of diving ducks on the Housatonic is an indication, the damage includes not only the Sound’s oystermen but possibly the wildlife that relies on the Sound’s oysters as well.

[This is also my first post for Connecticut Audubon Society's blog, which you can read here.]

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