The Oyster Industry in New Haven
History1638 ? First settlers arrive in New Haven and are introduced to oysters by local Indians. Oysters were so plentiful people could pick them up by hand. The oyster beds stretched from the upper reaches of the Quinnipiac, Mill and West Rivers to the harbor entrance.
1762 ? Demand for oysters has increased, causing a shortage. First law passed to protect oyster, no gathering of oysters from May 1 to September 1, which includes spawning season.
1784 ? No person can pick up more than two bushels of oysters a day and must be resident.
1800 ? The law is forgotten. New Haven carries on trade with other cities such as Albany and Montreal.
1815 ? First steamboats used in New Haven.
1848 ? James Goodsell of New Haven invents the Sharpie.1850 ? 250 schooners importing two million bushels of seed oysters (two years old and younger) to New Haven, where they are planted in the oyster beds.
1855 ? Lot law passed, stating one person can own only two acres or less of oyster lots.
1867 ? Cultivation of oysters begins when Captain Charles Henry Townsend persuades oystermen that native oysters can be grown with a profit by conducting experiments in this moat.
1873 ? Steamboats are used in New Haven for oystering.
1881 ? Shellfish Commission founded and maps out underground lots of private ownership, setting up stakes for identification.
1900 ? No more oysters are imported to New Haven. Oystering now biggest fisheries industry in the United States. Some 50 oyster companies line the Quinnipiac River. New Haven produces 12 1/2 percent of Nation's total output of oysters and seed oysters.
1910 ? No longer safe to eat oysters taken from New Haven rivers and the harbor because of pollution.
1924 ? Number of oysters produced in New Haven decreases to one-half of one percent of nation's total output. Dredging and the filling in of marshes has added so much silt to the water that the oysters cannot live. Hurricanes and winter storms have wreaked havoc in the harbor, making the water too cold or the salt content too high for oyster spawning.
1950 ? Much of the New England oyster industry has been wiped out by hepatitus scares, hurricanes and the oyster's predators, the sea star and oyster drill.
1965 ? Federal government declares shellfish industry a disaster.
1972 ? State forms Aquculture Division of Agriculture Department. This, and more public awareness leads to some improvement in the industry.
Although the oyster industry will never be as big as it once was in New Haven, thanks to stricter laws and improvements in the quality of the water, the oyster industry is beginning to come back.
Growth and DevelopmentWhat is an Oyster?
An oyster is a bivalve, a shellfish with two hinged halves and can live to be 40 years old.
How Do Oysters Breed?
Oysters spawn in shallow, brackish water in July and August.
Eggs from a "brooder" meet with sperm froma a male oyster. The embryo becomes a veliger, a bivalve larva and is free-swimming for about two weeks. A female can produce half a billion eggs during one season but only one egg in four million will reach maturity. An oyster is capable of functioning as a male at one tome during its life and female at another.
A fertilized egg or larva, called spawn, develops a gill and drops to the bottom, attaching itself to a clean, hard surface. Now called a spat, it is a pinpoint in size.
Oysters filter 20 to 30 quarts of water an hour, trapping living organisms or plankton.
Thumbnail size at three months, oysters are then picked up by the oystermen and moved to deeper water to make the spawning beds ready for next summer's crop. Moved several times before being harvested, it takes four to five years for an oyster to reach the market size of 3 ½ inches.
Sea stars wrap themselves around the oyster and pull until the oyster gets tired and relaxes its shell. One sea star can eat three to seven oysters a day.
Oyster drills bore through the oyster shell with a file-like structure called a radula, and can kill up to 60 percent of a crop.
Because more and more oysters were picked up from the shallow water, boats were needed to reach the oysters. The first boat to be used was a dugout canoe, made from a hollowed-out log. The Native Americans design was refined, enabling it to carry a day's catch of 30 to 100 bushels of oysters.
In 1848 James Goodsell invented the Sharpie, a flat-bottomed craft 20 to 40 feet long, that could manuever in water only two feet deep. Single or double masted, Sharpies could be handled by one person. It also became New Haven's first racing sail craft.
A scissor-like device with interlocking rakes on the end of long poles, tongs are used to bring up oysters from water 15 feet deep or less.
Used for oystering in deeper water and also called a drag, a hand dredge was pulled up or cranked by hand.
Power Boat Dredge
As used by oystermen today, power boat dredges can hold 21 bushels of oysters and weigh one ton when loaded. Larger dredges can hold up to 20 bushels and are pulled up by power driven hoisters.
City of New Haven Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees
John DeStefano, Jr., Mayor · Robert D. Levine, Director