March 28: Connecticut’s Oyster Industry Launches a New Era of Sustainable Development


When the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries first assigned a resident scientist to study Connecticut’s shellfish industry in the 1920s, Connecticut residents had already been harvesting oysters and clams from the waters of Long Island Sound for thousands of years. Created in the late 19th century, the Bureau’s mission was to study and promote American fishing as a sustainable commercial industry.  The Connecticut shoreline town of Milford, home to a number of commercial oysteries and located near the midpoint of Long Island Sound, proved to be an ideal place for their scientists to conduct aquaculture  research. Working out of temporary buildings, scientists carefully monitored the the Long Island ecosystem which housed Connecticut’s oyster farms and worked with local fishermen to promote more efficient and sustainable harvesting methods.

Taken in 1925, this photo shows some of the original research buildings at Milford before a permanent lab was built in the 1930s. (NOAA Fisheries/Paul Galtsoff)

In 1938, Congress approved $65,000 worth of federal funding to establish a permanent research laboratory and pier in Milford, thanks in a large part to lobbying conducted by Charles “Shang” Wheeler, a well-known local oysterman. The new Milford Laboratory contained seawater tanks, a photography darkroom, a library, and living quarters for resident scientists. Eleven years later, the Milford Lab secured funding for its very own state-of-the-art research vessel, which took its maiden voyage on March 28, 1951. Named the Shang Wheeler after the man who tirelessly promoted both Connecticut’s oyster industry and the significant work done by the Milford Lab, the research vessel expanded the lab’s scientific mission to include deep-water research and monitoring of pollutants in the waters of Long Island Sound. The Shang Wheeler plied the waters of Long Island Sound on its research mission for 50 years before being retired, and was instrumental in establishing the Milford Lab as one of the preeminent aquaculture laboratories on the East Coast.

Today, under the aegis of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Milford Laboratory remains a vitally important research site, employing nearly two dozen permanent staff members. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the research facility “continues to conduct state of the art science today that informs management for the sustainable expansion of aquaculture, supports the shellfish aquaculture industry and advances new technologies, and maintains the Laboratory’s standing as a world leader in aquaculture science.” The ongoing quest to promote healthy and sustainable aquaculture in Long Island Sound took a giant step forward, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Milford Lab History,” NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center website

George Sennefedler, “The Milford Laboratory: Oysters, Clams, Scallops, and Fish, Too [PDF],” Wrack Lines Magazine

William McDonald, “Charles Edward ‘Shang’ Wheeler,” Milford Hall of Fame