Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2008


Building for the Future
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All Hands on Deck

All Hands on Deck

Kim Tetrault ´83 inspires his community to save the local shellfish.

View a slide presentation on growing shellfish

by Phoebe Hall

Clear skies, calm seas and temperatures in the mid-70s marked the first day of summer on the North Fork of Long Island, and all morning the Southold Project in Aquaculture Training, otherwise known as SPAT, buzzed with volunteers.

A not-for-profit organization started by Kim Tetrault ´83 to train community members to grow and plant shellfish in the local Peconic bays, its volunteers monitor hatcheries, test water quality, build equipment, boats and whole structures — just about everything that needs to be done to keep the place going.

And then at noon, “it´s like the lunch whistle blew,” Tetrault jokes, and they all head home.

One volunteer stops by a nursery building toting a mesh bag. Otto Schmid, a retired marketer, wants a few clams to take home for chowder. There are several dozen good-sized adults in the tank he´s peering into; Tetrault insists he takes them all.

But it´s not the free shellfish that keep Schmid coming back to SPAT after more than seven years. It´s the sheer force of Tetrault´s enthusiasm for the project, its mission, and the volunteers´ potential to make a difference.

“He got me hooked, and the rest is history,” Schmid says.

Tetrault, 48, wears tan Crocs and a gold-and-silver watch set 10 minutes fast; by late June, he´s already sporting a deep tan. Shellfish are a part of his life even when he´s off the clock, whether he´s participating in wine-and-oyster fundraisers promoting locally grown foods or playing bass in a band called “Jazz on the Half Shell.” After working with the volunteers all morning, the energetic director of SPAT has less than two hours to lead a visitor on an information-packed tour of the facility before he gives a lecture on how to grow shellfish. Again and again he credits the volunteers, who range in age from 6 to 88, for making it all possible.

“The truth is in the Peconics there wouldn´t be any scallops if we weren´t growing them,” Tetrault says.

* * *

After graduating from Connecticut College with a self-designed major in marine zoology and field biology, Tetrault married his college sweetheart, Heather Cusack-Tetrault ´83, and worked as a carpenter for several years before matriculating at the University of Rhode Island to earn a master´s in aquaculture. In 1995 the Cornell Cooperative Extension hired him at its shellfish hatchery in Southold, N.Y., where a decade earlier an algal bloom, called brown tide, had wiped out the scallops in the Peconic bays, and the local shellfishing industry as well.

The hatchery, which raises scallops, oysters and clams, is on the property of a former community college, sandwiched between a cove and Little Peconic Bay. Curious townspeople would drop in to see what had become of the school, and were often fascinated by what they found; one regular visitor repeatedly asked Tetrault for oysters to grow at his dock. Finally — “to get him off my back,” Tetrault laughs — he gave the man a coffee cup full of “seed,” about 1,000 tiny oysters ready to be transplanted, and a cage to grow them in. Within months the oysters were big enough to be eaten — a process that normally takes up to two years — and a light went on in Tetrault´s head: “I realized, this guy is totally pampering these oysters, which we can´t do.”

Tetrault saw the potential for community involvement in this success story and, with a federal grant, founded SPAT in 2000; running it is now his full-time job, and he has no paid staff. “No one I ever paid could work as hard as the volunteers,” he says. They show up several days a week, year-round, logging 13,000 volunteer hours last year. A core group of only 18-25 members are responsible for all that work — Tetrault says most of the 180 member families don´t volunteer at the facility. “But any time they do anything, they do volunteer,” he adds.

Kip Bedell is one such member. Once a year he stops by SPAT to pick up oyster seed, which he grows near his house. “It requires a little maintenance to keep the crabs out,” says Bedell, founder of a local winery, “but it´s not too much work.” But as his oysters grow, they filter the water, cleaning it, and they spawn, repopulating the local bays. Members like Bedell, Tetrault says, “are doing the environment a favor. They may not think they are — they just want to grow them to eat them.”

More than a decade after Tetrault started at the hatchery, local shellfish are finally starting to recover. He says it wasn´t until last year that you could find a scallop while just walking on the beach. Cornell´s hatchery is responsible for much of the comeback, but no small amount of credit goes to the SPAT volunteers. “Everyone who comes here has a bit of ownership in the program,” Tetrault says. “They´re putting effort into something that isn´t busy work, it´s real stuff. … It´s magical because it really works.”

More about SPAT

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