Diminishing 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 environmental problems.

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 by pollution.

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 eat.

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 to Ganz.

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."