With a smile, Gov. Lincoln Chafee lifted a freshly harvested quahog to his lips and devoured it with a satisfying slurp.
“You can’t get any fresher than that,” he said. “It’s so sweet.”
Chafee, along with Rep. Eileen Naughton and leaders from the state’s environmental agencies, went clamming on Narragansett Bay in support of the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan project yesterday morning. They met at Brewer Greenwich Bay Marina at 1 Masthead Drive for a two-hour excursion.
“Shellfish are not only very important to our economy and our culture, but also a resource that we uniquely manage,” said Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), noting how crucial shellfish are for tourism and commercial fishing. “We put this planning initiative together because we want to make sure we’re putting enough time and attention toward managing them well.”
According to a press release, whether commercial, recreational or in controlled aquaculture systems, there is a critical need for a close look at the shellfishing industry and its future management, as well as its habitat. Responding to this demand, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Coastal Resources Center and Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island are helping the state create the first Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan, or SMP. This document will provide comprehensive policy guidance regarding management and protection measures for shellfish located in state marine waters.
A coordinating team is pitching in, as well. It consists of members of DEM, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and representatives from Roger Williams University. They anticipate the plan will be ready in about a year.
In 2012, the value of the industry as a whole was approximately $7 million. Of that, the value of the quahog sector was $5.15 million. (These figures represent dockside landings value.) As of 2010, the quahog fishery was Rhode Island’s fourth most valuable commercial fishery in the state, following squid, lobster and fluke.
With regard to participation in the commercial quahog fishery, there are 534 active commercial fishermen. About 50 percent of them are full-timers.
Jody King, a Warwick shellfisherman and the vice president of Rhode Island Shellfishermen's Association, volunteered his time to captain one of the three boats that went on yesterday’s excursion.
King, who has well over 20 years of experience on the water, enjoyed the expedition as much as his guests. He told a crowd of reporters how much he loves being a shellfisherman.
“I get up every morning before my alarm and look at it and say, ‘Fifteen more minutes. I can’t wait to go out on the water,’” he said. “I have so much fun on the water every day. It’s an honor and a privilege to show people what I get to do for a living and how hard it really is. I haven’t been to the gym in 20 years and I’m in as good of shape now as I was 20 years ago.”
In a separate interview, he further expressed his feelings.
“I see more sunrises in one year than most people see in a lifetime,” King said. “It’s my favorite time of day.”
His wife, Liana King, is allergic to shellfish. Still, she supports her husband, and went along on yesterday’s journey. Of course, she went on a separate boat, as a DEM Enforcement boat and a CRMC boat accompanied King.
“He’s doing his two favorite things; he’s a natural teacher, and he loves being out on the Bay. It’s the perfect combination for him,” she said. “He has a message to give to all of Rhode Island, not just the politicians. A lot of people in Rhode Island don’t know what Rhode Island was built on. The water was the livelihood.”
Not only did Chafee get to taste a fresh quahog, he also got the opportunity to use a bull rake, a basket-like rake that loosens shellfish from the bottom of the Bay and allows shellfishers to pull them aboard their boats. King has the rake attached to a 34-foot aluminum pole.
“It’s all in the hips,” Chafee said. “So many of us get out in the Bay recreationally and see the commercial people working, so it’s great to be elbow-to-elbow with somebody who does it every day.”
Coit and Naughton had turns with the rake.
“It’s hard work,” Naughton said, expressing her sentiments about the importance of the SMP. “It really keeps our eye on our resource. We want to make sure we take care of it and check on its status to see what we can do to improve it. By having a comprehensive management plan, we’ll be able to do that.”
Also along for the ride were Rhode Island Sea Grant Executive Director Dennis Nixon, CRMC Executive Director Grover Fugate, CRMC Chair Anne Livingston and Shellfish Management Plan leader Jennifer McCann, who is part the Coastal Resources Center and the Rhode Island Sea Grant.
“There’s nothing like being hands-on and walking in somebody else’s shoes to really understand,” said Livingston. “Quahogging is very Rhode Island, and we want Rhode Island to continue to be special.”
“It’s part of who we are,” she said. “I’ve never seen such a passion for such a resource.”
She’s right. Everyone there was enthusiastic about the SMP, including King.
“We have 439 miles of coastline and we are trying to manage Rhode Island’s true fish,” said King. “The quahog is the shellfish of Rhode Island. We have a jewel here in the Bay and we need to preserve it and promote what we have in this state.”