Golden goose…but can it last?

Quahoggers say previously closed area five times more productive than the bay

Posted 6/1/22


Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on improving the quality of Narragansett Bay waters is starting to pay off says Michael McGivney, president of the Rhode Island …

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Golden goose…but can it last?

Quahoggers say previously closed area five times more productive than the bay



Hundreds of millions of dollars spent on improving the quality of Narragansett Bay waters is starting to pay off says Michael McGivney, president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association.

Payback for McGivney and shellfishermen doesn’t come without hard work, but the “golden goose” as quahoggers call the 1,900 acres of the lower Providence River has reopened on a limited basis for a second year in more than 75 years. 

The area that reaches north from a line between Nayatt Point in Barrington and Conimicut Point to a line between Bullock’s Point in Riverside to south of Gaspee Point in Warwick, opened May 23 to commercial shellfishermen for three hours and again on May 25th for three hours.  It will continue to open on alternate days for two days a week throughout the summer.  Because of the Memorial Day holiday the area opened on Tuesday this week and is slated to open again on Thursday.  A recording of a half inch or more of rain at Rhode Island TF Green International Airport forces the closure of the area.

Although last summer was unusually wet, causing multiple closures, the yield from the area over 15 days was 4.5 million clams. The surprise was that about 90 percent of the catch was little necks that command higher prices than the mature and older quahogs used for chowder and sold by weight rather than by the piece.  Little necks range in age from 4 to 7 years.

With the area being closed for so many decades, it was thought the older and larger quahogs would be more plentiful explains Conor McManus,  Chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Marine Fisheries.  

Can the area continue to produce quantities of little necks, or does the goose have only one gold egg? 

 McGivney and Warwick’s Jody King report a productive two days of quahogging.  Both agreed the first day was tough because of high winds. King said he harvested 2,500 little necks bringing him close to the six-bushel limit. King said the area is “five times better” than other areas in the bay. McGivney did not disclose his catch, but said these have been “good pay days.”

King and an estimated 130 to 140 quahoggers were out there again this Tuesday with many of them arriving a hour before the opening to secure their preferred location. King scored another highly productive day harvesting more than 2,600 pieces (little necks), 400 larger quahogs (tops) and 100 pounds of the even larger chowders.  He estimated it was a $1,000 day for him.

For a first time the area is also open to recreational diggers. It is open every day of the week. The recreational shellfishing limit is one peck or 2.3 gallons. 

McGivney described the quahogs as being concentrated in “ribbons” or sets. He believes this is a reflection of the currents and how it deposits the larva as well as another “golden” goose extending up the Providence River.

McManus applauds the decision to open the area saying, “it provides an economic opportunity to the industry that has faced tough times.” The challenge, he says, is to develop a management plan that provides for a sustainable long range fishery. Doing that requires reliable data from a variety of sources including evaluations of the harvest, water tests including temperatures, available food for the quahogs, predators that include crabs, whelk and even birds.

“It’s a river of high abundance,” McManus says preferring not to use the golden goose analogy of King and McGivney.  He believes the thinning of the stock as well as the raking of the bottom can be helpful, but the danger is “not to reduce the spawning stock to a level it can’t reproduce.” 

King on fears the area has limited regenerative powers and continued openings could kill it as a mother source of quahogs throughout the bay. 

“This is my golden goose, is it going to continue to make seed?” he asks. He feels the area is being “raped” and opening it “is not a good thing to do.”

Yet King will fish the area as long as it is open. His logic is that if he doesn’t others will; it is easy work compared to other parts of the bay and it is good money. Additionally, he points out that quahoggers have focused on three areas – off Conimicut, Gaspee and Bullock’s Point – that is a fraction of the 1,900 acres. 

“There’s lots of space to play,” he said.

McGivney, who has served as association president for the past 27 years, sees opening the area as revitalizing the industry, offering opportunity to young people and introducing them to working for themselves.  DEM offers an “open license” to students in school and 23 years old or younger.  They are limited to a catch of three bushels as day.

McGivney is happy with the schedule the shellfish advisory council and the Marine Fisheries Council worked out for this year. The Fisheries Council recommendation was referred to DEM director Terrence Gray who had the final say.

For starters the advisory council was able to meet in person rather than by Zoom. McManus said concerns about over fishing the area as well as flooding the market with product were addressed by reducing the days of fishing per week from three to two. Also, increasing the overall number of days by extending the season was seen as a means of easing the pressure on the area while giving full time diggers opportunities.  The two days per week schedule carries through Labor Day when it goes to one day a week through October.  The area is off limits to shellfishing in November but will reopen for one day a week for three weeks in December. McManus said the reason for the December opening because at that time of year is the best prices for quahogs.

McGivney has seen a noticeable improvement in the water north of the Conimicut shoal. He points out there haven’t been the huge quantities of seaweed that floated in rotting masses and washed up on beaches several years ago. Furthermore, he’s seeing improved water quality extending north, reinforcing his conviction of more than a single golden goose.

David Borkman, a principal environmental scientist with the DEM, attributes the improved bay water quality to “decades of financial investment.” He says it is not just with the CSO (combined stormwater overflow)  - a system of underground cisterns that hold sewage and stormwater during an event until it can be treated – implemented by the Narragansett Bay Commission, but also municipal wastewater treatment plant improvements, reduction in cesspools  and individual actions, such as picking up dog poop that has improved water quality.

“The effect of rain (on the quality of bay water) as almost been eliminated,” he said.

quahogs, quahoggers


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