Fairfield’s shoreline and coastal waters offered Native people, English colonists, and their descendants abundant shellfish and fish, as well as salt marshes that nourished and attracted a range of animals and plants. Oysters, clams, scallops, eels, crabs, blue mussels, conchs, horseshoe crabs, and fish were all plentiful in Fairfield waters.
Over time, the plentiful resources offered by the shoreline and Long Island Sound were depleted due to overfishing, real estate development, and pollution. Today, there are significant efforts underway to help restore and manage these shore and ocean resources.
Native Americans caught cod by line and hook; they speared brook trout, striped bass, bluefish, flounder, and snappers with harpoons; and used nets to catch alewives, sturgeon, and salmon. Fish would be broiled or roasted, or made into a fish stew with vegetables.
Salted cod was also a mainstay of English colonists’ diet and of the New England economy. In fact, the promise of abundant cod was one of the motivations for English settlement in what became New England, as there was a large European market for fish to comply with meatless days in the Christian religious calendar. Dried and salted codfish was traded for wine, cloth and manufactured items from Europe and for the brown sugar and molasses of the Caribbean. (The best cod went to southern Europe, the middling sort was sold to Americans in rural areas, and the lowest quality was sent to the West Indies.)
Large-scale commercial fishing led to the decline of fish populations throughout New England in the 20th century. Recent changes in federal regulations, designed to protect American fisheries, have helped about half of those fish stocks recover, and carefully managed aquaculture has helped oysters make a comeback in Long Island Sound, but pollution and warming waters continue to threaten the vitality of coastal fisheries.
Eels, Clams, and Oysters
Staples of the shallow shoreline, eels, clams, and oysters often were so popular that Fairfield’s human occupants depleted the resource over time. Eels were once a North American staple, sustaining Native peoples throughout the eastern coast as well as early English settlers.
The eastern oyster – designated in 1989 as Connecticut’s state shellfish - is a timeless and valued food source. Despite overfishing and depletion that began in colonial times, oyster farming has made a partial comeback. Oysters are more adaptable than some other shellfish, as they can thrive in warmer water, and since they filter a large amount of water for food, they help clean excess plankton out of Long Island Sound.
Now, Fairfield’s Shellfish Commission works to protect, increase, and manage recreational shellfish beds in town waters to ensure they remain both a viable industry and fruitful opportunity for the residents – not just the professional growers. As a resource, oysters are now again an important part of Connecticut’s aquaculture, with active beds in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and New Haven.