PROVIDENCE — Something is wrong in the water in Narragansett Bay. At least, that’s how Bill Foeri, owner of Digger’s Catch seafood in East Providence, puts it.
“I’ve been shellfishing in Narragansett Bay for 40 years, and now they’re not reproducing, for some reason,” Foeri told the Globe on Feb. 8..
Quahogs, hard-shell clams often served stuffed that are the official shellfish of the state of Rhode Island, have been in decline for decades, according to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. Foeri’s is one of several local businesses the Globe spoke to recently that have taken a hit. A special legislative commission is investigating the decline, and will meet next at the State House later this month.
A graph in a recent Department of Environmental Management annual report illustrates the population’s fluctuation, showcasing dramatic drops over the last decade.
Many factors could be contributing, including nutrient deficiencies, predators, and climate change.
“There could be a thousand things,” said William Silvia, another 30-plus-year shell fisher in Rhode Island who first noticed a decline in 2018. He said his catch is down at least 30 percent or more on a daily basis.
Silvia has been a shell fisher in Rhode Island since he was 15. He said he used to see hundreds of shell fishers out in Narragansett Bay. Now there’s more like 30.
“And there’s no new people. No new kids are coming into it, because you can’t make a living nowadays,” Silvia said.
Quahogs are filter-feeders that eat microscopic algae. They bury themselves in the sea bed and extend their siphons above the surface of the ocean floor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pulling in water, oxygen and food. One theory behind the decline is that Narragansett Bay has gotten a lot cleaner over the years due to changes in the way towns manage waste water. A cleaner bay could mean quahogs have less to eat.
“You look down and the water is so clean,” Silvia said. “The sun penetrates it so hard, so fast, and warms it up so quick, a lot of things happen.”
Marta Gomez-Chiarri is a professor at the University of Rhode Island in the Fisheries, Animal, and Veterinary Science Department. She is also on the legislative commission working to learn more about the quahog population decline. They’ve been meeting every month since October, and plan to present their findings to lawmakers in the spring.
“The bay has changed a lot in a few years,” Gomez-Chiarri said.
One change, as mentioned by Silvia and other fishermen, has been Rhode Island’s massive, decades-long combined sewer overflow project, in which underground storage tanks and tunnels have been built to contain sewage during heavy rains, reducing the amount of untreated sewage overflowing into the bay, and in the process reducing a source of nitrogen. Less nitrogen decreases hypoxia — low oxygen conditions that can result in fish kills and the death of other organisms living in the bay.
“It is possible that by removing nitrogen so there will not be a hypoxia, we actually are not providing as much food as there used to be in the bay for clams,” Gomez-Chiarri said. “That’s one potential cause.”
But fewer nutrients and cleaner water have obvious benefits for the bay, Gomez-Chiarri said.
Those benefits include “better water quality, more light for other species, so it’s a balance between the quahogs and other species,” she said.
The conditions in Narragansett Bay also have led to a shift in algae blooms, another potential reason there could be fewer quahogs. Some algae blooms are harmful, but some are beneficial, including winter blooms, which haven’t occurred for several years. Algae blooms need a combination of nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as sunlight to occur.
“The fishermen are focusing on the winter bloom, which feeds a lot of the shellfish, and that has not happened consistently for a few years,” Gomez-Chiarri said, adding that winter blooms provide “great food” for shellfish.
Another cause behind the quahog decline could be an increase in predators in Narragansett Bay. There are more invasive crabs and conch than there used to be, which feed on clams, Gomez-Chiarri said.
“These are all hypotheses,” Gomez-Chiarri added.
Conor McManus is the chief of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Marine Fisheries. He’s attended one commission meeting so far, to make a presentation on quahog research.
“I think what’s coming across loud and clear is the needed value for continued science on quahogs, particularly the monitoring,” McManus said. “There’s very few programs that consistently monitor quahogs statewide, or even in just the bay alone. I think there’s a lot of justification now about how do we improve our monitoring of a species that supports the largest single-species fishery in Narragansett Bay.
“There’s a lot of things that quahogs can do for ecosystems, so there’s a lot of interest in trying to make sure that this can remain a natural resource for Rhode Island,” McManus said.
Despite their decline, the state’s quahogs have something of a national profile these days, after a recent Rhode Island Commerce campaign marketing the Ocean State as a tourist destination, deploying 7-foot-tall, 250-pound sculptures of stuffies at airports in other parts of the country, and touting the baked quahogs as a signature dish.