2017-08-24 / Nature

Rise of the Quahog

By Charles Avenengo


Rhode Island is one of 14 states to designate a state shell, the Northern quahog. (Photos by Carmen Rugel) Rhode Island is one of 14 states to designate a state shell, the Northern quahog. (Photos by Carmen Rugel) Currently, the Rhode Island shellfish industry benefits hundreds of business owners in the state, from harvesters, to sellers, to restaurateurs. Consider local icons like Flo´s Clam Shack, McGrath´s Clambakes, and the annual Great Chowder Cookoff that in June completed its 36th year, with thousands attending.

At the turn of the 19th century, more than 20 percent of Narragansett Bay´s waters were leased for scallop production. Rhode Island controlled a sizeable percentage of the national production, and at one point, the state was the leading supplier of scallops to the renowned Fulton Fish Market in New York City.

Ultimately, scallop production went into decline. Industrial pollution reared its ugly head, particularly in the waters of the upper bay, contaminating shells and forcing closures of scallop beds.

The Hurricane of 1938 all but finished off the industry as many parts of the bay’s bottom were transformed from a hard surface, which the scallops need, to a muddier, soft bottom. That brought the quahog to prominence, which thrived in the softer environment.

Forced to find alternative sources of income, harvesters switched to clamming, and thus began the rise of the quahog, the clam chowders, the clam cakes and other such local offerings we enjoy today.

By the late 1970s, aquaculture was also on the rise. One industry pioneer, the Blue Gold Mussel Farm in Middletown, became the leading producer of mussels in the country. Unfortunately, tiny pea crabs also found the Middletown mussels, which, combined with Hurricane Gloria in 1986, led to the mussel company’s demise.

Undaunted, aquaculture in Rhode Island pressed on. In 2002, with the efforts of Sen. Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative was enacted. As a result, Rhode Island has since secured more than $3.6 million in federal grants and there are currently more than six million locally grown oysters sold annually. The state´s aquaculture industry is considered a model for other coastal states.

For the most part, the local bivalves (any of more than 15,000 species of clams, oysters, mussels, scallops, and other members of the phylum Mollusca characterized by a shell that is divided from front to back into left and right valves) are filter-feeders, but with gastropods (snails, slugs, whelks), things get a little squirrely. They eat bivalves. Using their tongues, they either rip open or drill a hole through the calcium-carbonate hard shell and suck out the animal’s soft innards. Amazingly, those that survive can live for a long time. One species, the ocean quahog, or mahogany clam, a deep-water favorite for chowders, is known to live for 250 years!

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

The Northern Quahog and Other Shells

Seashells are part of life in Rhode Island. Over the centuries, nine types of shells have been harvested in the Ocean State for food, currency and adornment. They are quahog clams, steamers or soft-shell clams, bay scallops, Eastern oysters, periwinkles, slipper shells, razor clams, whelks and blue mussels.

While the Ocean State is one of 14 states to designate a state shell, the Northern quahog, the clam wasn´t always king. At the turn of the 19th century, the bay scallop was the most harvested shell in the state.

Seashells are part of the Phylum Mollusca. All mollusks are defined as invertebrates with a soft and unsegmented body that is usually encased in a calcareous shell. According to the Register of Marine Species, there are some 240,000 types of mollusks in the world. A varied group, mollusks also include squid and octopus. Of the familiar seashells, they are divided into two main types: bivalves and gastropods. Examples of bivalves are clams, while gastropods are snails.

In addition to providing food, shells have factored into many aspects of human culture, including being used as currency (wampum), personal adornments (pearl necklaces), in religion, musical instruments, poultry feed, fertilizer, art, architecture, and to line driveways and walkways. And then there is beachcombing. How many of us have our “finds” decorating our mantles or windowsills?

The best time to search for beachcombing treasures is after a storm. In addition to the regular goodies often found, one shell frequently sought after by conchologists is the semi-translucent pink form of the tiny tellin, found amongst seaweeds washed ashore. The rarest find of all on local shores, however, is the

Shellfishing Rules

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Shellfishing regulations at a glance.

Any resident of Rhode Island may, without a license, hunt for quahogs, soft-shelled clams, mussels, surf clams, oysters (in season Sept. 15-May 15), and bay scallops (in season, first Saturday in November until sunset Dec. 31). Harvested shellfish may not be sold or offered for sale.

Shellfishing is prohibited statewide between sunset and sunrise.

Minimum sizes for shellfish:

Quahog: 1-inch hinge width

Soft-shelled clam: 2 inches

Oyster: 3 inches

Bay scallop: No seed possession

Surf clam: 5 inches

Channeled or knobbed whelks: 3 inches width or 5 3/8 inches length

Daily possession limits for residents for quahogs, soft-shell clams, surf clams, mussels and oysters (bay scallops excluded) in non-management areas (Aquidneck Island has no management areas): 1/2 bushel (4 gallons) each per person.

Certain areas of Aquidneck Island, including Newport Harbor, are closed permanently or seasonally.

This is only a portion of the regulations. For more complete information, consult “Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Regulations: Shellfish” of the Marine Fisheries Statutes and Regulations for specific shell-fishing guidelines.

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