The State of Rhode Island’s Quahog Industry

Stakeholders wonder, where are the clams?


“I was born to clam,” says longtime commercial quahogger Jody King. “I've done all the other fisheries. I've done inshore and offshore lobstering, inshore and offshore dragging. I'm an Aquarius, a water sign, and everything around me revolves around water. But this is what makes me happiest.” 

Quahogging is a hard job, a solitary job. A year-round industry, it’s chugging along on a skiff in freezing temperatures, icy winds pushing at the bow; at the height of summer, it’s drifting under the relentless rays of a blazing sun. Thirty years working a bullrake has kept King in phenomenal shape. At 61, his body isn’t held together with pins, and he’s on zero medication, all of which he credits to his job. But King worries he is one of the last skiff cowboys making a living with the wild harvest.

During clamming’s boom time in the 1980s, there could be upwards of 2,000 boats searching Narragansett Bay’s muddy floor for the bivalves. In 2003, the state capped the number of licenses to around 450, an inadvertent boon for licensed quahoggers; however, today those still in the business are contending with a shrinking catch. According to King and his counterparts, there are simply less clams in Narragansett Bay.

King recalls that 30 years ago when it rained, he’d see feces and waste come out of the river and float into the bay. “Isn't that gross?” he asks. “Now there's absolutely nothing. It is so pristine, that at 17 feet [water depth], I can count stuff on the bottom and see things move. That’s how clear the water is.” 

As fisherman and author Sarah Schumann writes in her book Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage, Rhode Island’s shellfishing fleet was instrumental in the bay’s cleanup for the past 50 years. In the 1970s, they were vocal activists calling for an end to the toxic dumping that polluted the bay’s water. Their dramatic publicity stunts helped force lawmakers to deal with the calamity happening to the bay’s fragile ecosystem.

Similarly, shellfishermen collaborated with Save the Bay and other stakeholders to clean up the wastewater coming from the treatment plants. Their activism helped enact Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (RIDEM) 2005 legislation to actively reduce nitrogen levels in the water by 50 percent by 2014 after a catastrophic hypoxia event that led to scores of dead fish washing up on the shoreline. Millions of dollars were spent on updating wastewater facilities to curb the release of nitrogen during water treatment. The clean-up was so successful that a 62 percent reduction in nitrogen was recorded, surpassing the goal.

“We've done great work at improving water quality,” says King. “But there are payoffs. There are positives and negatives and one of the negatives I've watched in my career, and a lot of other fishermen may say the same thing, is how clean is too clean?”

 King’s concern — echoed by other fishermen — is nitrogen depletion. It was first raised during the 2017 Baird Symposium hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant, bringing together stakeholders in the coastal communities. Clams feed on phytoplankton, which requires nitrogen to grow. Too much nitrogen, and you get algae blooms, which shuts down commercial fishing and recreational swimming. But could too little starve out a species?

 “When I did the interviews with the wild harvest shell fisherman for the book in 2014, they were saying, ‘resources are great; it’s never been better,’” says Schumann. But, five years later, when she interviewed them again, “it was a totally different tune, from one of optimism to one where they felt the resource was drying up. It was very abrupt; and the timeline coincides with the changing nitrogen concentrations in Narragansett Bay.”

Schumann concedes, however, that the ecological changes in the bay go beyond nitrogen depletion. Interspecies competition, for example, could be affecting the clam stock. Schumann points to the decker snail, which lives on top of the sediment and requires the same nutrients as the quahog. “They've always been present in the bay, they are native species, and they do well in the same estuary in waters [as quahogs].”

 Anecdotally, quahoggers say they are pulling up a lot more deckers in their rakes. One theory for their abundance points to the loss of the sea star, which was wiped out of Northern hemisphere waters by a wasting disease a few years back. “Starfish are sort of a keystone predator. They roam around on the bottom of Narragansett Bay, eating what's most available, which is the decker because they're on top of the sediment,” explains Schumann. With starfish keeping the decker population in check, quahogs were able to obtain food from their homes under the mud. With the starfish predator gone, the deckers intercept food that would have gone to the clam. “It's possible that they have out competed the quahog.”

 Schumann is quick to point out that correlation does not equal causation, but she believes observations like these raise enough questions to warrant scientific research to understand what’s happening to our clams. “It seems as though [the clams] have been shifting northward, but not necessarily like climate change’s impact on other species,” such as lobster migrating north into Maine and Canada. “I'm talking about just shifting northward within Narragansett Bay. Based on anecdotal observations from the fishermen, they all told me the only areas that were reliably good [for quahogging] anymore were off of Rocky Point and Barrington Beach, in the upper band. It’s as though there's been a receding of the resources further up the bay, towards the Providence River.”

 Barrington Beach is where quahogger King drops his rake. He claims the only reason he can still fish there is because “we haven't tapped the golden goose.” His golden goose? The Providence River.

 The levels of pollution in the Providence River receded so much that last year, the DEM opened up shell fishing on a restricted schedule. Areas that had not seen a bullrake in 75 years meant hot harvesting.

 “Everybody thought it was just going to be old quahogs, that [they] would have consumed all the resources and not let any young seeds settle in,” says Schumann, “but they found multiple generations of quahogs, and that was indicative of a really healthy ecosystem, which nobody was expecting. A couple of fishermen suggested that it's almost like the optimum zone.”

 While quahogger King is all for farming the river – in the same way you farm land to keep it from going fallow – he worries that over-harvesting will cause a trickle-down effect on the small quahogging areas that are still vital. Clam larvae migrate, after all.

 “It's great that people can rely on the Providence River as a really vibrant resource for now, but you know, what happens in the future?” asks Schumann, echoing King’s concerns.

“We need to have these big, challenging conversations,” says Courtney Schmidt from the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, which was formed for exactly that. They’ve partnered with Schumann to carry out and expand her work to bring scientists and other stakeholders together to implement solutions to these complicated problems around the bay’s changing ecosystem. “We're in that squishy space between the managers, the researchers, the policy advocates, the people who work and make their living from the bay,” Schmidt explains. “We do our best to unite all of them, and to make these collective actions.”

 “Fishermen have an astounding amount of knowledge,” she continues. “They know what’s going on day-to-day. But we also need verifiable, defensible science.” The movement of water, the new fish and other inhabitants making their way to Narragansett Bay as the water warms, even the cycling of nutrients from the top to the bottom of the water column impact the bay in so many different ways that it's hard to pinpoint one cause for the reduction in stock.

This makes the fishing fleet’s observations all the more valuable. “The idea here is for the fishermen to inform the science and hopefully as we move forward inform the decision making. We need to figure out a way to capitalize on [their knowledge] in a way that's verifiable, defensible science to address these concerns, like Jody has. Is the bay too clean? I don’t know, that’s a good question.”

 “No one wants hypoxic conditions,” she continues, referring to an oxygen deficiency. “We want to promote a healthy ecosystem that serves as many people as possible.” 

“I'm 61. I will finish my career right where I am. I can still make a living doing what I'm doing,” King says. Still, he’s worried about the next generation of fishermen, those coming up who may not be able to afford mortgage payments or buy a car because the fishing stock’s disappeared. Plus, as King points out, “We are iconic to Rhode Island.”


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