Aquaculture & Fisheries

Study Panel Urges More Research into Decline in Quahog Landings

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Narragansett Bay quahog landings have been on the decline for the past 50 years. (istock)

PROVIDENCE — More transplants, more research, but no more nitrogen — at least not yet.

That’s the message coming from the state’s own panel studying the decline in quahog landings. The commission, impaneled last year and jointly chaired by Rep. Joseph Solomon, D-Warwick, and Sen. Alana DiMario, D-North Kingstown, released its final report late last month, on the same day the state House of Representatives unveiled its version of the state budget.

The 11-page report lists three broad recommendations, each one chosen by consensus during the study commission’s meeting on April 30. Notably absent from the recommendations are two key priorities from the quahoggers themselves: a relaxing of state permit standards and an increase of nitrogen and nutrients released into Narragansett Bay during the winter to promote greater food sources for quahogs and other shellfish.

The quahoggers ultimately failed to get the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management on board with the ideas. The department is required by the federal Clean Water Act to ensure Narragansett Bay is fishable and swimmable, and since the fish kill of 2003, has imposed more stringent release requirements on the wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) surrounding the bay and the Seekonk and Providence rivers.

The commission’s report instead suggests increasing nutrient monitoring in the bay and developing a plan for more targeted research among the different offices in DEM, WWTF operators, the shellfish industry, and research institutions such as the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University, with a potential goal of maintaining nutrient loading close to the Redfield Ratio, the proportion of nitrogen to phosphorus found in phytoplankton.

Quahogs are filter feeders; they bury themselves in the floor of Narragansett Bay and pump water through siphons to feed on the microscopic algae known as phytoplankton. Phytoplankton themselves, being algae, feed on nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen that exist in the water.

While there is some correlation between the amount of nutrients in the water and the plankton population, not all scientists are on board with seeing a causation. Robinson Fulweiler, a professor and researcher at Boston University, told commission members last November there were no easy answers in the decline of quahogs in Narragansett Bay, noting “the decrease happened before [the decrease in nitrogen].”

Commercial quahog landings have consistently declined since the mid-20th century, and especially since 2012. According to the commission’s findings, landings “precipitously declined 56%, from 902,988 pounds harvested in 2012 to landings of 397,442 pounds in 2022.”

Despite the decline in landings, the number of licensed shellfish harvesters has mostly remained the same over a 10-year period. In 2012 there were 540 harvesters, compared to 527 a decade later in 2022.

While the commission couldn’t agree on nutrient levels, it isn’t recommending the state sit on its hands while the quahog industry wilts away. Chief among its recommendations is an increase in the number of quahog transfer and seeding programs, including a shellfish hatchery for quahogs and other shellfish restoration efforts.

It’s actually not a new idea for the state. DEM already has a handful of aquatic hatcheries for trout, as part of the department’s trout stocking program, where it loads freshwater rivers, ponds, and lakes with trout for residents to catch every year.

The commission also recommended identifying shellfish spawning sanctuaries, areas where quahogs and other hard-shell clams are known to spawn, and keeping those areas off-limits to shellfishing.

Commission members also recommended the state develop a long-term quahog restoration plan for the upper bay, suggesting the plan be modeled after similar work in Long Island, and to include “stock augmentation and reduced fishing effort in selected areas of the Bay to promote an increase in quahog density and increase in quahog reproductive potential.”

The final recommendation from the study panel? Establish a permanent quahog advisory commission or similar board composed of stakeholders. The board would likely be structured similar to the way the study commission has been structured, with representatives from the shellfish industries, academic scientists, state regulators and experts, and wastewater treatment facility operators, and be entrusted to ensure the recommendations from the commission are executed.

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  1. The idea of increasing nitrogen in the bay is just total BS. The Bay was MUCH more productive before Europeans polluted it. Saying quohaugs need more pollution is just a gimmick by those who hate environmental regulations and just want to pollute more. What the Bay really needs is to return to its health and nutrient levels in 1630. It has been all downhill for the Bay since the Europeans started polluting the water and more pollution now is just weird.

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