By James Lomuscio
As Jeff H. Northrop’s motorized raft leaves the shore of Westport’s Sherwood Mill Pond, it heads out into an 83-acre expanse of tidal waters that while shallow, runs deep in Northrop family history.
Jeff H. Northrop surveys Sherwood Mill Pond from Hummock Island: “More fun than hedge fund trading.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
It also heads into a seemingly different time and an alternate Westport — one that’s sun-drenched, breezy and redolent with the scents of a simple New England fishing village, one that belies the modern mansions that surround it.
“It’s a totally different world out here,” said Northrup, 32, on a recent visit.
In a short while, he lands at Hummock Island, a rock that props up a restored 1741-built cottage brought there centuries ago by oxen to house a man who guarded the oyster beds.
Since 1857, Northrop’s family has owned the exclusive shellfishing rights to the Sherwood Mill Pond, which was farmed for clams and oysters up until the late 1950s.
“When my great uncle, Capt. Walter Allen passed away in the late 1950s, that area lay fallow,” said Jeff A. Northrup, Jeff H. Northrup’s father.
Allen owned the famed Allen’s Clam House that had fronted Hillspoint Road on the Mill Pond’s west side. A Westport landmark for more than a century, it was demolished in 2004. The land is now a town-owned park.
Hummock Island sits in Sherwood Mill Pond. The 1741-built cottage is on the left, the floating “Oysterplex” on the right. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
In 2013 serious shellfishing returned. The father, who had spent years as a yacht salesman, and son, after working for a hedge fund after college, teamed up to reclaim the family’s legacy.
“I’m the CEO and he’s the COO,” the father said.
And operations is what the younger Northrop is enmeshed in year round in the day-to-day operation of Hummock Island Shellfish, LLC. It is a business approaching $1 million in annual revenues — with potential for a lot more — that sends Westport oysters to some of the finest restaurants.
“Today, Hummock Island remains independent — focusing on culinary purity and quality,” the company boasts on its website. “Employing modern technology, our farming process is smarter and more sustainable for the world.
“We proudly supply and partner with established and emerging restaurants to deliver the Hummock Island experience that guests all over the world appreciate.”
Currently, Hummock Island Shellfish harvests an average of 20,000 oysters a week. They wholesale for 80 cents each, Jeff H. Northrop said.
“And we harvest to order, so there isn’t any warehousing,” he said.
Some of the artifacts displayed in the Hummock Island cottage reflecting the family’s oystering history. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
The younger Northrop boasts there are an estimated 15 million oysters being raised from seeds to nearly full size in mesh bags and small cages in the pond.
“This pond can do up to 40 million oysters a year,” he said.
He pointed to a large section of more mature oysters in cages suspended in the water, all in neatly lined rows resembling a farm field.
As they reach maturity, the shellfish are relocated to 100 acres of Long Island Sound for a couple of weeks as a precautionary cleansing period.
The whole process from seed to harvest takes about 18 months, the son said, faster than the five-year span for oysters in the wild.
“It’s attributed to the nutrient-rich pond and the speed of water flows over the oysters,” said employee Jonathan Goldstein, who has been with the Northrops since the venture began.
Visitors on the Hummock Island tour learn how to shuck oysters and enjoy plenty of samples. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
Goldstein said during the season from June through September oysters grow from seeds in mesh bags. The bags are replaced with larger ones as the oysters grow.
“Beyond that, at one-and-a-half inches (in length), they’re in cages,” he said, adding that the last step is moving the cages to the Sound in an area beyond the Compo Beach cannons.
Their presence is visible to the average beachgoer as thin blue poles resembling lobster pot markers poke above the water
Harvesting ready-to-shuck oysters appears the easy part compared to the routine shifting of oysters from bags to bags as they mature to cages in the pond. And during the winter the labor-intensive job can be frost numbing, says Goldstein.
Much of the work takes place in floating, wood-framed building dubbed the “Oysterplex” docked at Hummock Island.
The center steel grate floors can be lifted up as the building floats atop the cages to be worked. It is like a huge ice fishing house. The building also holds a rotating oyster sorter that separates different sizes.
Jeff H. Northrup works some of the oyster cages on Mill Pond, which he says can produce 40 million oysters a year. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
In the process, Jeff H. Northrop said, oyster shell length is trimmed “encouraging them to grow circular and wider because customers like a deep cup.”
Jeff A. Northrop said that before his son came on board in 2013, he had begun to restart oyster farming in the pond only to have Superstorm Sandy give him a double wallop in September 2012.
“Sandy, yeah that was a good name for it,” he said, adding that the tons of beach sand that had breached the pond’s sluice gates suffocated most of the oysters.
“We lost all of our product,” he said.
That is when his son joined him, raising substantial venture capital to position the centuries old industry for the 21st century.
“We started using modern techniques, cages and bags that didn’t touch the bottom, so they wouldn’t be damaged by sand,” the father said.
Employee Jonathan Goldstein shows off some of the equipment used in harvesting the oysters. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
“This is the new project we started in 2013 to grow boutique oysters, and what my son has done is he brought modern technology to an old family business,” he added.
Meanwhile, the father restored the Hummock Island cottage that Sandy had all but demolished. By hand and from top to bottom the restoration adhered to historical accuracy, so much so that today it looks like a mini-seafaring museum, earning the Northrops a Westport Historical Society award.
There were other challenges, such as navigating state and federal aquaculture permitting processes.
“With the cages near the cannons, for that we had to go through eight federal and state agencies,” the father said.
Approvals came from organizations including the Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Bureau of Aquaculture.
“Our industry is very well regulated, which is a good thing because the more regulations, the safer the consumers can feel,” he said.
WestportNow’s James Lomuscio gets a lesson in shucking oysters. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Gordon Joseloff for WestportNow.com
He lauded another dimension his son brought to the family business, “oyster farm tours which are wildly successful.”
Jeff H. Northrup says the cost is $75 per person for the 90-minute tour that incorporates the history of oyster farming, shucking lessons and oyster tasting on Hummock Island.
Details can be found and reservations made at www.hummockisland.com.
“Hedge fund trading, derivatives trading — this is more fun,” the younger Northup added.