Fishery, Diggers Demise
Mark Finn was leaning
on a stool with his arms folded, listening to the garble coming over a marine
radio and waiting for the phone to ring. His grandfather founded Greenwich
Bay Clam Co., and his father ran it until a few years ago. Now, Finn was
the master of all he surveyed.
The squat, cinderblock building on Greenwich Cove was built for high volume.
A wooden walkway led straight from the docks to an overhead door so that
boats can easily be unloaded. Inside, a contraption of stainless steel hoppers
and chutes rested idly on a graded cement floor. Two more overhead doors
opened onto the loading dock and a parking lot paved with crushed shells.
Everything was quiet. Finn was alone.
Even though it was January, it should have been busier. The weather was
warm and calm, and the waters of Greenwich Bay, which are closed all summer,
were just reopened to shellfishing. But there were still clam digging boats
tied up at the docks. The company's two collection boats, which sit at anchor
in Narragansett Bay on busy clamming days to save the diggers the trouble
of making repeated trips, are also docked just outside. The day before,
two boats brought in about 5 bushels of bay quahogs, small clams known for
their sweet taste and tender flesh. Finn was waiting to see if any would
come in at all that day.
It hasn't always been so slow. Greenwich Bay Clam-just one of the shellfish
processors and wholesalers on Narragansett Bay-used to handle between 500
and 1,000 bushels each day, Finn said. That's a pretty big change from the
50 to 100 bushels their best days have brought in recent years. "Our
sales are way down," he said. "There's no product coming in."
The problem is statewide. Statistics from the National Marine Fisheries
Service show a steady decline in Rhode Island's quahog harvest. In 1998
commercial clam diggers brought in about one quarter of the 2.5 million
pound 1990 harvest. Quahoggers-whose long, low boats and bull rakes have
become a part of the state identity-have been losing to a series of overlapping
Art Ganz, the quohog expert at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental
Management, said heavy fishing of tautog and flounder has indirectly hurt
the quahog. Those species feed on, among other things, crabs and clam worms.
Ganz said the resulting surplus of these clam predators has tilted the balance
underwater, leaving cracked and vacant clam shells littering the bottom.
The quahogs that survive their submerged foes have been facing a more serious
threat from above. Clam diggers have taken a lot of bay quahogs in years
past. For a twelve-year stretch beginning in 1979, they brought in over
2.5 million pounds of the mahogany-shelled clams annually. The bumper harvest
was triggered when the Providence sewer system-a combined system built to
handle both raw sewage and storm runoff-was upgraded in 1978. The result
was cleaner water over 30 percent of the shellfish beds in Rhode Island
in upper Narragansett Bay. The other result was a flotilla of clam diggers
sweeping clean those same shellfish beds, which had been closed for decades
Entire tracts of water remain untouched because of pollution. Nearly 20
percent of the 95,000 acres of shellfish beds in Rhode Island are permanently
closed to clamming. Narragansett Bay has been a commercial and industrial
center for over 150 years. Heavy metals, PCBs and petroleum contaminants
have all been dumped into the watershed over the years. As a result, shellfishing
is prohibited in the northern section of the Providence River and other
heavily polluted waters. The quahogs, which siphon nutrients from the silt
and water, have absorbed huge quantities of pollutants and are unsafe to
But industrial contamination isn't the only pollution problem. Industrial
growth would be stunted without workers, so increased population density
is never far behind. Subsequently, central Rhode Island is a mass of planned
suburban housing and strip malls. In the process of urban planning, wastewater
treatment plants for the city of Providence were designed to tie in with
the bay. Shellfishing near them is prohibited because the water is too high
in organic contaminants.
Other areas, like Greenwich Cove, also have wastewater treatment plants
that feed into the bay. From the dock outside Greenwich Bay Clam, proprietor
Finn can look northeast to Narragansett Bay, east to Pottowamut State Park,
and south to a sewage treatment plant less than 200 yards away. "There
are millions of dollars of clams out there," he said, sweeping his
hand across the view. "You just can't get them."
The quahogs thrive in contaminated waters-not despite the organic pollution,
but because of it. It's gourmet fare for a bivalve and creates sanctuary
from bull rakes and tongs. "Believe it or not," Ganz said, "pollution
is the most effective conservation method we have."
Sometimes the respite is revoked. To sustain the fishery temporarily, the
D.E.M. has been sponsoring transplantation operations. Some of the adult
quahogs are released in designated areas for a period of two years-long
enough for two complete spawns. Others are brought to zones of clean water
for just long enough to purge their own contaminants, usually four to six
weeks, and are reharvested and sold.
At times, though, the organic contaminants can shut down clamming altogether.
Jeff Brownell, a policy expert at Save The Bay, said the blame is on the
rain. The Providence sewers are still a combined system, and the network
of pipes and the system's capacity are woefully inadequate. Even a moderate
rainfall results in raw sewage being dumped into Narragansett Bay. "One
quarter of an inch of rain will shut down Area A for a week," Brownell
said, referring to D.E.M.'s designation for the upper bay. Other areas aren't
as easily overwhelmed, but a storm dumping just an inch of rain will close
most of the bay to shellfishing. Aside from sewage overflow, the storm water
washes agricultural runoff and contaminants from roads and highways. "It's
not a very nice cocktail," Brownell said.
The accumulated effects have devastated the quahogging industry. In 1997,
the last year that records were available, Area A was closed for over 250
days. "Imagine that you go to your office every day only to find out
that it's closed 3 or 4 days of every week," Brownell said.
When the upper bay is closed by the contaminated concoction, precious little
water is left. According to Ganz, most quahoggers dig for their treasure
in the west passage, between northern Jamestown Island and the North Kingstown
shore. The focus on one area has depleted the stocks their too.
Facing those prospects, many clam diggers have tied up their boats for good.
During the 1980s, there were as many as 2,000 diggers scraping through the
muck for shelled delectables. Now there are only between 250 and 350, according
The clam stocks will have to rebound before the clam diggers return to the
waters. The state has a plan. Ganz said the proposal before the Rhode Island
Marine Fisheries Council calls for more aggressive transplanting, an expansion
of the two-year spawning program, and decreased catch limits.
The catch limits are the sticking point for now. Clam diggers are protesting
the proposed changes. Under the current regulations, a commercial license
permits 12 bushels of clams each day. Ganz said the proposed reduction to
six bushels is unacceptable to diggers, even though most average only 5
bushels each day. "Nobody's caught 12 bushels in years," he said.
"I think it's going to be a long, hard fight."
In the meantime, there is the promise of better water quality in the bay
near Providence. The city, pushed forward by a group of environmental organizations
called the Narragansett Bay Initiative, is upgrading its wastewater treatment
facilities. The planned increase in capacity would reduce the number of
sewage overflows from 80 each year to 4 after the first phase is complete
in just seven to eight years.
That's a long time for the diggers. "It's getting to the point where
the only place you'll see a quahogger is in a museum," Finn said. "You
wonder how much longer you can go on."