Climate Crisis

Fishermen’s Tales Illustrate R.I.’s Changing Seaside Landscape

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Much of Rhode Island's life, work and play are centered around the state's marine waters. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

Rhode Island is often sold for its connection to the ocean; advertisements show oceanfront hotel views, beachside tiki bars and calamari hot out of the fryer with rings of neon-green pickled peppers.

But dive beneath the surface — under the clam’s casino, the umbrella-studded beaches, the chowder festivals — and what emerges is a more nuanced picture of the Ocean State’s fishing way of life.

It’s a portrait of hard knocks, sunburned faces, scarred hands and early mornings. It’s the smell of diesel and low tide, the scuttle of invasive crabs and the gut-wrenching feeling of bank account balances scraping bottom before shooting up once more. Look harder still, and you will also see woven fish traps, wampum beads and eroding beach access that threatens the connection between past and present.

These are the stories of a few of these fishermen: a father and son who rake the sea for quahogs and sell the briny fruits of their labor; a fisherman who has turned to an invasive species to earn his daily bread; and a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe who carries on a centuries-old tradition of honoring the bounty of the sea through his craft.

A tail of two Davids
Davy Andrade has a tentacle poking through the collar of his T-shirt. The tattoo, presumably attached to some sort of sea creature, is one of many that cover the youngest Andrade’s arms. His father, David Sr., also sports swirling tattoos that peek their way out from underneath his short-sleeved button-down.

The elder Andrade sits at his desk like King Neptune on his throne and looks out over his dominion — a Bristol shop that has peddled quahogs, littlenecks and all manner of seafood since 1987. He looks at his son, the next in line to the Andrade legacy of bullraking shellfish in the wee hours of the morning, and smiles.

Andrade Sr. started quahogging as a kid.

“It just seemed like the thing to try, and when I tried it, it was good money,” he said during an interview last September. “I didn’t think I’d be doing it for a living at first, but as you go along you start doing better. And I liked it, it was like going to the gym and getting paid for it.”

He fell in love with quahogging, and 34 years ago Andrade Sr. and his wife, Gigi, opened Andrade’s Catch on Wood Street. They sold fish caught by other local fishermen, the quahogs and clams they harvested and fish and chips with coleslaw for those who didn’t want to wait to eat their fill.

As the shop grew, so did the Andrade family, and soon three small Andrades were helping sort clams and prep food. The youngest, Davy, fell hard for the fishmonger and quahogging life.

“I grew up on the water. Some of my first memories were waking up in my dad’s boat cabin and hearing the sound of the rake scratching away,” Davy said. “I guess I’ve always looked up to him and saw that there weren’t many people carrying on the tradition. When I turned 16, I was strong enough to pull the rake and from that point on I knew I wanted to get my own boat and give it a shot.”

The motion of the bullraker is an unnatural-looking one: tanned arms move to-and-fro and the shoulders bunch up, while shell-scarred hands grip the rake, which churns up the brackish water and mud below. The heavy rake is then hauled up, quahogs toggling in its bent jaws. It’s hard work, and the Andrades have the arm muscles to show for it.

Andrade Sr. is proud of his youngest son, who lives above the seafood shop and who is carrying on the Andrade fishmongering line. But he’s also afraid that Davy could be one of the last of a dying breed of quahoggers, with the industry dwindling significantly since the boom of the 1970s and ’80s.

“It was pretty big back then, there were over 3,000 fishermen … now we have like 450, and most of them aren’t full time either,” the elder Andrade said. “In the ’90s the moratorium came, and now they have a lottery system now where they allow a certain number of new licenses each year. We lost a whole generation of fishermen.”

The moratorium Andrade Sr. is referencing first came about in 1995 and lasted three years before being expanded further in 2002.

“New licenses should be controlled, as necessary, to help prevent overfishing and support the economic viability of the industry,” according to a 2008 white paper by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

The current number of new commercial quahogging licenses allocated each year hovers around 36. That number gets divided further into the over-65 shellfish license and the under-23 student shellfish license.

“They made it really hard to get a license,” Andrade Sr. said. “Unless you were a student, you couldn’t get a license. They shut a lot of guys out of the business.”

Coupled with younger generations going to college and getting white-collar jobs and the reliable fallback of working with your hands became just that: a last resort kind of job.

“A lot of people want to make money working on a computer,” Andrade Sr. said. “There are some people out there that are still willing to go out there and struggle to make $40-$50,000 a year and work hard. These people are getting fewer and fewer to come by.

“I’m glad I have the business here, you know, but I worry about my son who is working along with me. He doesn’t have the mortgage to pay anymore, but on the other hand, he doesn’t have the volume of business that we had.”

Sea of change
Jason Jarvis had an unorthodox path to fishing. He started out his career as a chef, before realizing that the hours were bad, the pay worse and the addiction-fueled industry a life-suck.

“I got out of that business because it was killing me, and I ended up running a drug rehab center for eight years for adolescents and kids,” he said. “I started there as a cook, and they paid for my training to become a therapist.”

Then, one fateful day, his brother showed up outside Jarvis’ workplace with a bucket of lobsters and a few meaty tuna loins.

“He asked if I could work for him, and I said yeah,” Jarvis recalled. “He simplified the job a little too much, and before I knew it, I was 50 miles offshore in a gillnetter puking my brains out.”

But the money was good — Jarvis could make $1,200 a week, and the sea and its bounty called to him. He later bought his own small boat and has been fishing out of Westerly for seven years.

The changes to the local fishing habitats were subtle at first: a bloom of algae here, a sudden glut of green crabs there.

“The changes, God almighty, where to begin with that?” Jarvis said in November. “We had an algae bloom in some of the salt marshes this year, and it was an orange, light-yellow color that I’ve never seen before in my life, and I’ve been walking past those since I was a kid.”

He’s also seen a preponderance of red seaweed, an invasive sea plant from Japan that gets tangled in gear and washes up on beaches, baking in the sun and emitting a rotten-fish type of stench.

“For the guys that gillnet, it’s been a nightmare for them,” he said. “And it never really used to exist until that last 10 to 12 years.”

Then, there’s the green crabs. Formally called the European green crab, this small crustacean is voracious in its appetite for bivalves and has inflicted lasting damage on the East Coast’s soft-shell clam population. But local fishermen have found a way to make money off green crabs, by catching and selling them for bait, which helps control the population. But now, even the once-omnipresent green crab has been diminishing, and Jarvis believes it’s because of warming water temperatures.

“This summer, the Pawcatuck River, where I keep my boat, the water temperature got up to 84, 85 degrees,” Jarvis said. “Now, this is brackish water, and all that water pretty much flows out into Little Narragansett Bay and then into the ocean. So, we didn’t see as many eels in our traps this year, and there are no green crabs in the entire Pawcatuck River, and that’s pretty scary because for years guys have been making a living with them.”

The marine waters that so name the Ocean State are changing. Water temperatures off the coast of New England have risen by about 3 degrees since 1901, which might not seem like much but actually makes the region a leader in ocean warming. And what was once a region rich with Atlantic cod, lobster and sea scallops is slowly giving way to warm-water species such as scup, black sea bass and sea robins.

For fishermen like Jarvis, this means that what is around today might be gone tomorrow.

“Spanish and chub mackerel showed up almost every year now, and finger mullet too. I’d say probably, the last 15 years they were quite abundant,” Jarvis said. “And then this year we didn’t see any of them in the salt pond. I mean, maybe a handful. Not sure what’s going on with that because they like the warm water, but it’s definitely an environmental factor.”

Bountiful beauty
People have cast nets into the ocean for thousands of years. Here in Rhode Island, Indigenous communities dug through muddy shoals and inlets for clams and crabs and built intricate fish baskets designed to trap grown fish and let the smaller ones pass through.

All the local tribes, including the Narragansett, Pequot and Mashpee Wampanoag, saw and still see not only the bounty of the sea but its beauty. Oyster, mussels, clams and quahogs were thanked for the nourishment they provided, and their shells were treasured for the deep purple and creamy white that was exposed after the feast.

Allen Hazard Sr. is in perpetual awe of the beauty of quahog shells. He holds two shells in his large hands and points out how special this particular find was.

“See how rich and dark that purple is?” he asked, tracing his finger over the ridges and sloping sides. “Lots of quahogs don’t get that deep color so far into the shell. I’ll never cut this one up.”

Hazard, a member of the Narragansett Indian Tribe, carries on his ancestral tradition of honoring the bounties of the sea by making beautifully carved, sacred wampum pieces. His shop, The Purple Shell in Charlestown, is filled with his work: polished earrings, intricate necklaces and bracelets and stunning ceremonial pipes with purple and white shell inlays.

“The story of the wampum, first and foremost, is nourishment,” he said during a February interview. “It gave its life so we could continue ours … then you are able to see a beautiful, beautiful color once you scrape out the meat.”

Hazard sits behind his desk that is scattered with papers, seashells, bevel drills and finely cut beads. A portrait of his mother hangs on the wall above.

Hazard learned the tradition of carving wampum from his mother and aunt.

“You hang around these people and pick up things, take on some traits,” he said, pointing up at the photo of his mother. “But I’ll never be what they were.”

Wampum are sacred, and each piece that Hazard makes not only honors the quahog but also the tradition that has passed down to him.

“It’s just beautiful. I’ll never get tired of working with them,” he said. “But this is not my primary job, I don’t even see it as a job, this is my tradition.”

But access to the coast — and, therefore, the quahogs and the tradition of wampum making — has slowly been disappearing as property lines cut out areas that used to be accessible to anyone.

Hazard recalled the days when he could roll his truck up near an inlet and hunt for blue crabs, oftentimes also stumbling upon quahogs ripe for the picking.

“I was chasing blue crabs more than quahogs but when I felt them, I’d pick them out. There was no problem,” Hazard said. “And then, as the years go on, I’d go back to that same spot and the next thing you know I got this ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ Well, I’m going blue crabbing. ‘Well, you’re on private property.’ And I’m like oh, great. So there went that spot. Then further down the road, there went that spot.”

Coastal access is increasingly under threat, with waterfront homes often sold as coming with their own “private beaches,” and vague and antiquated median high-tide rules muddying the legality of who can set foot where.

But for Hazard, this land — and where it touches the sea — has always been a part of his people’s traditions. Having that taken away over the years means slowly losing bits and pieces of his culture and heritage, an ever-present tide of time, “progress” and development chipping away at tradition.

“It’s very depressing to know that … we used to inhabit from Connecticut to Massachusetts, the oceanfront. We were considered oceanfront natives,” Hazard said. “But today, our reservation is nowhere near the ocean. It’s connected to a swamp, and there’s a little pond there, but you don’t get quahogs from fresh water.”

While he is happy to carry on the tradition of wampum making, Hazard fears that the act of fishing, crabbing and quahogging will slowly be taken away from the everyday person, and an entire way of life could disappear.

“I don’t know that there’s a lot of Allen Hazard’s left, and I don’t mean wampum-makers,” he said, leaning back in his chair and fingering an intricate wampum bracelet. “I mean good ol’ boys that like to take their kids down to the water. My granddaughter just turned five and she loves going with pop pop to make believe she’s catching blue crabs. That old style of entertainment is almost gone.”

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  1. Thank you for sharing this beautifully written story about important slices of Rhode Island’s cultural pie. Like you said, RI is sold for its connection to the ocean, but the story is so much deeper than seaside hotels and restaurants.

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