MILFORD — A crew of 17 workers with Briarpatch Enterprises of Milford spent Thursday hauling, washing and refrigerating thousands of blue point oysters, part of the 28,000 or so oysters to take center stage for Milford’s 49th Annual Oyster Festival on Saturday.It’s hard work to harvest the oysters, said Brian Yarmosh, manager of Briarpatch Enterprises, but the company has been up to the task for years, serving as the sole provider for the festival for almost a decade and in business in general for 41 years. “It’s a big stress, really, and I don’t mean it in a negative way,” Yarmosh said Thursday. “This week we lost Tuesday and Wednesday pretty much from the wind. And today it wasn’t worth me staying out, but we need the oysters, so we kept the oyster boats out. If you don’t get the oysters and you’re only the only supplier, then you’re going to kind of look like a fool, you know.”
Yarmosh said that as of close of business Thursday, Briarpatch would have hauled in close to 200 of their 280-bag oyster quota. With about 100 oysters per bag, that left them needing to harvest 8,000 oysters on Friday. They also harvested thousands of clams for the event.
He said the harvested oysters had slightly deeper shells, which means they will have slightly more meat to them than in typical years, and ranged in size from three to eight inches.
The harvest was not without its challenges this year with the winds making it hard to keep oyster and clam rakes from two of the company’s boats, the 45-foot Audacious and the 45-foot American Dream, on the seabed. A third boat that went out Thursday, the 42-foot Nancy E, collected oyster cages.
The work is arduous, especially when seas are rough, Yarmosh said. A boat on perfectly flat water still exacts a toll from its crew as they work to keep their feet beneath them.
“Even when it’s just a sunny flat calm day, you get worn out because you’re getting hit by the sun from above, the reflection from below and you’re on your feet for eight to 10 hours a day. We’re not like sitting down and relaxing,” Yarmosh said. “We’re standing up most of the day.”
A boat rocking or pitching with waves increases the strain far more, said Shawn Forgette, one of the fishermen on the crew.
“A lot of guys get on the shore and once they sit down, that’s it. They don’t want to get back up,” Forgette said. “I won’t stop until I’m done for the day because if you stop, you’re exhausted. I’ve seen people fall asleep standing up.”
Another challenge is the recent health advisory for Vibrio vulnificus, an illness from a rare flesh eating bacteria that has prompted officials to warn against eating raw shellfish and swimming in the Long Island Sound with a wound.
There have been three cases in Connecticut so far, two of which were fatal. Two of the cases came from swimmers who had open wounds that may have been exposed to brackish water, one of whom died. The third person ate shellfish from an out-of-state establishment and died, officials said.
Yarmosh said he is not worried about recent health warnings against eating raw or undercooked shellfish.
In his 24-year career, Yarmosh said, he has worked closely with the Food and Drug Administration, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference and state and local officials on the protocols developed to prevent the infections.
Most cases, he said, arise from compromised immune systems within the individuals infected – typically in people older. And federal health officials have told him through the years something he has seen again and again – cases of the extremely rare illness arising from faulty handling practices involving middlemen. In this case, he said, he is a direct supplier to the festival. No middle men are involved and these oysters will get to the festival within five days and after being refrigerated within five hours of being harvested.
That makes this event the safest circumstance in which to eat shellfish, he said.
Briarpatch gives the city a deal on its oysters at $60 per bag. The quality and size of the oysters would rate $80 per bag, Yarmosh said. The company does the work, though, as much for the prestige of being the festival’s supplier and to give back to the community where Briarpatch has spent most of its life, as any economic reason, Yarmosh said.
Forgette said he was proud of his company’s association with the festival.
“It brings in a lot of tourism. That also aids Milford business. Bringing money back into Milford,” Forgette said. “I also like the fact that a lot of people there don’t necessarily eat a lot of oysters or it’s a way for them to get more familiar with what an oyster is.”