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'Sea Squirts' Threaten County Shellfish Industry

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – They're called "sea squirts," but don't let the scrawny-sounding nickname fool you. They can cause big trouble.

The small, invasive sea life species is spreading westward from the eastern Connecticut coast near Rhode Island and could turn out to be a major headache for an already reeling $30 million shellfish industry in Fairfield and New Haven counties.

That's because the tiny, tube-like creatures can–and have–wreaked havoc on shellfish beds in coastal waters in British Columbia, Canada, and as far away as Australia.

Though identified in the state's coastal waters during the late 1990s,

Styela clava, or Asian clubbed tunicate–they’re called sea squirts for their "odd, ugly appearance"­–were believed to be contained to Connecticut's eastern waters in Groton, near Rhode Island.

Marine biologists and aquatic experts never thought the squirts would make it farther west because it was assumed they could not survive warmer temperatures.

The experts were wrong, and not only that, the sea squirt can survive for up to 48 hours out of water, and recently have been discovered as far west as Bridgeport.

Now, the search continues in the waters throughout Fairfield County.

"We're sounding the alarm warning early because these ugly little sea creatures are spreading west in the state's coastal waters, and that poses a potential economic threat to the shellfish industry," said Prof. Carmela Cuomo, who heads the marine biology department at the University of New Haven and made the startling discovery with a group of her graduate students.

Cuomo said the discovery that sea squirts have spread west was made after one of her graduate students decided to study the invasive species four years ago, and other students continued the project.

"We never expected them to make it as far as they already have, so they may already be deeper into Fairfield County," said Cuomo. "But if they're not, they likely will be."

Cuomo says the squirts, which attach themselves to shellfish beds, fishing lines, docks and boats, were first brought to the U.S. from Korean waters on returning war ships during and after the Korean War. She said the species "compete for food" with shellfish and must be removed by hand and discarded on land.

"If people find them, do not throw them back into the water," she said. "Call us or at least take them out of the water and use appropriate methods to get rid of them, such as burying them."

Leah Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for the non-profit Save the Sound in New Haven, said the spread of sea squirts into New Haven and Fairfield counties is a "genuine concern.”

"The fact they've been found as far west as Bridgeport is not good news and threatens the shellfish industry," she said. "In other places they have overwhelmed shellfish beds and smothered them, so we've got to be vigilant."

Schmalz said monitoring spread of the creatures in places like Fairfield, Westport, Norwalk and Greenwich is essential. But, she added, "the jury is still out on how far and fast they will spread."

David Carey, director of the state's Department of Aquaculture in Milford, said he wants to study the data before determining what should be done.

"There's no reason to panic," said Carey. "We don't know yet how far west the species can spread, or how quickly. It could be a problem in five years, maybe sooner, but we don't even know that yet. It's something we intend to take a very close look at."

If you come upon sea squirts, you can contact Cuomo at (203) 479-4553. She said a Website will be set up shortly that will include more information.

To reach Richard Weizel, email  rweizel@mainstreetconnect.us.

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