Debris clogs Westport River, suffocates oyster beds

The late James "Crab" Manchester poles his skiff near Hix Bridge recently. The water was once plenty deep here, but piles of old bridge debris are now a hazard to propellers most of the way across, he said. The mess has also diminished the oyster catch upriver. The late James "Crab" Manchester poles his skiff near Hix Bridge recently. The water was once plenty deep here, but piles of old bridge debris are now a hazard to propellers most of the way across, he said. The mess has also diminished the oyster catch upriver.

The late James "Crab" Manchester poles his skiff near Hix Bridge recently. The water was once plenty deep here, but piles of old bridge debris are now a hazard to propellers most of the way across, he said. The mess has also diminished the oyster catch upriver.

The late James “Crab” Manchester poles his skiff near Hix Bridge recently. The water was once plenty deep here, but piles of old bridge debris are now a hazard to propellers most of the way across, he said. The mess has also diminished the oyster catch upriver.

Once upon a time a shellfisherman could pull three or four bushels of big, sweet oysters from the Westport River’s East Branch above Hix Bridge.

And he could motor about the river there without fear of knocking the propeller off his outboard.

Several bridge projects later, neither is possible.

Rather than remove the massive bridge supports after the ’38 hurricane destroyed the span, the builders merely knocked them aside to make way for a new bridge. To this day, granite chunks weighing many tons and  flotsam from later bridge jobs clog the river just north of the bridge.

The dam, say shell fishermen and boaters, is killing those oysters and is a hazard to navigation.

“There used to be plenty of water there, all the way across — never had to worry about your motor,” said the late Jim “Crab” Manchester during a visit to the area a few weeks ago. A member of the town Shellfish Advisory Commission, he said then that he was the oldest shellfisherman working the river.

He said he went through the area not long ago “with my motor lifted and the boat just stopped.” He had hung up on one of those bridge pieces. “It was low tide and it was just seven inches below the surface. There’s rock and old rebar all over the place there … You don’t even want to try to motor through there except through the (east side) channel.”

Worse, says John Borden, also of the Shellfish Commission, is the fact that the oyster population is slowly suffocating.

“Those big rocks stifle the flow of water through there and there has been a steady decline in oysters,” Mr. Borden said.

He said he used to be able to pull four bushels out of waters north of the bridge without much trouble. “Now you are lucky to get one,” and a lot of the oysters there “are stunted — small with more fragile shells.”

The answer, says Matt Patrick, executive director of the Westport River Watershed Alliance, is to remove those boulders and restore the river’s flow.

Efforts to do that have been going on for at least a dozen years and a fresh attempt is under way now, he said.

He credits Ken Perez, now retired from the Environmental Protection Agency, for being the impetus for the work.

Mr. Perez said he became aware of the problem nearly 15 years ago during EPA studies of the Westport River.

In what had been nearly 30-foot deep water, “we’re suddenly getting depths of just a few feet. What’s this about?”

This had historically been a superb oyster area, he said. “It had everything going for it — lack of predators because salinity is lower,  good current speed in a narrow part of the river, and a hard bottom” washed clean of muck by that current.

But now, on the north side of the barrier, the “current has been reduced by a factor of four or five (and) and the oysters are literally suffocating in silt.”

He believes a cleanup is imperative.

“It’s a man-made mess and the oyster population is suffering from it,” Mr. Perez said.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which has studied the situation and is an enthusiastic supporter of the job (a key part of its mission is undoing harm done by government to waterways), estimates the cost at around $1 million.

The Corps would pitch in $612,000 of that cost, and an amendment being sought to a state environmental bond bill would set aside $387,500 for the state’s share. The Watershed Alliance has told the town it would try to raise funds to cover any remaining town share of the work.

Mr. Patrick, along with a representative of the Army Corps, went to Boston last week to testify on behalf of the bond bill amendment. He said he is confident that it will be approved but that the bigger hurdle comes later when the state secretary of environmental affairs determines which projects within that bond bill get priority.

“I plan to give them  quick history and then hit the economic issues — that the oyster beds here were historically loaded but have withered away, and along with them the business and income they once provided.”

Mr. Patrick said that rather than remove the stone bridge supports years ago, “they merely pushed them aside.” The enormous pieces, weighing many tons apiece, are strewn much of the way across the river there, except for the east side channel.

“That has really restricted the river’s flow and has allowed sediment to fill the deep holes,” he said, leaving oysters few firm surfaces on which to attach.To test that theory, they intend to set oyster floats out on the north and south sides of the bridge to compare oyster growth.

The Shellfish Advisory Commission is convinced that the project will help restore oysters and other shellfish in that part of the river. In fact, the commission recently made that recommendation for inclusion in the town plan.

If all goes as hoped, Mr. Patrick said he hopes the project could be accomplished in two years or less.

With the flow restored, and the bottom gradually cleansed of sediment, “There is every reason to believe that we will once again see a return to the good old days of abundant oysters on the river,” Mr. Patrick said.

And that, he added, will bode well for the river itself since oysters filter and clean the water in which they live.

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