Catching Quahog Crooks
It’s a beautiful fall day on Narragansett Bay. After a week of humid, 80-degree days, temperatures have dropped to the mid-60s. Chill runs through the air, but no wind. Environmental police officers Kevin Snow and Charlie Jackman—members of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Marine Unit—are happy to take advantage of the cool skies and calm waters to patrol the bay.
The Marine Unit is responsible for policing everything from rod and reel fishing and recreational boating to commercial vessels in state waters. Today, they’re focused on the bay’s commercial shellfishermen. And for Rhode Island, commercial shellfishing is synonymous with quahogs.
Quahogs, a species of hard clam (Mercenaria mercenaria), are such a Rhode Island staple that they were named the state shell in 1987. The Ocean State has 11 commercially available shellfish species, but quahogs make up the biggest chunk of that by far. In 2016, shellfishermen harvested 28 million quahogs in Rhode Island, compared with a paltry 8 million oysters.
Today is expected to be a slow one for Snow and Jackman. A collapsed sewer line in Warwick that discharged 300,000 gallons of sewage directly into the bay has forced DEM to ban shellfishing from Conimicut Point all the way to Prudence Island’s Nayatt Point.
Quahogs, being filter feeders, are especially susceptible to environmental effects. Through the filtering process, quahogs absorb pollutants, bacteria, and viruses in the water—it’s why DEM is so diligent about closures. (The upside is that, because quahogs are such efficient filter feeders, once the pollutant is removed, the animals can decontaminate themselves through their naturally occurring filtering.)
Besides monitoring closed areas, the marine patrol makes routine stops of shellfishing boats, a process that may include checking the operator’s shellfishing license, making sure all the required safety gear is on board, and ensuring there isn’t any undersized catch. Any confiscated shellfish are tossed right back in the water.
When the DEM vessel pulls up to inspect the first boat of the day, a man in his mid-70s waves the officer on board and starts to haul his gear—a long metal rake—up from the bottom. This is a mean feat considering he’s doing it the old-fashioned way: arm power. A retired carpenter, the man has been shellfishing on the side for decades to supplement his income.
“He told me he tries to get out here every day, even if it’s just for an hour,” says Snow. “Said it keeps him young.”
On the surface, it looks like there’s very little difference between how shellfish are harvested now and how they were harvested decades ago. The boats are a little larger, gadgets (like GPS systems and fish-finders) are more prevalent, but the tools of the trade are very much the same.
Bullraking has been the go-to form of quahogging in Rhode Island for more than 50 years. The state’s commercial shellfish industry relies on nonmechanized tools to harvest the state’s resources in an “efficient, yet sustainable manner,” according to the state’s shellfish management plan—a comprehensive document providing policy guidance on management and protection measures for shellfish in the state’s marine waters.
A bullrake is a tool designed specifically for pulling clams up from depth. Its long pole is designed to reach to the bay’s silty bottom where shellfish live. The spikes on the welded cage basket at the end of the pole are designed to dig into the soft surface of the seafloor and guide the clams into the basket. After throwing a rake over the side of the boat, a quahogger pulls the rake through the mud as the tide moves the boat along, rocking the rake back and forth until quahogs land in the basket. Then comes the heavy work of drawing it back to the boat.
Until 1999, it was illegal to use any mechanized devices while quahogging. Quahoggers pulled in their rakes by hand. But since the turn of the century, many of the state’s shellfishermen have opted to attach their rakes to ropes strung through a lobster pot hauler to save some energy—and their backs.
While vessel commercial shellfishing has remained much the same, there’s a different story going on under the waves. Since the 1970s, when scuba became mainstream, divers have harnessed the power of their wetsuits to break into the commercial shellfish market. Even though visibility in the bay isn’t the best, there’s definitely a bonus to being able to see exactly what you’re trying to harvest.
As one might expect, the new intrusion wasn’t a welcome one. And in the early 1990s, the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association even pushed for legislation that would ban shellfish diving. The legislation ultimately failed. However other than the technology needed to breathe underwater, shellfish divers are prohibited from using mechanized devices to aid in their endeavors.
Officers Snow and Jackman say that DEM has had reports of divers breaking that rule for years, but they haven’t been able to catch anyone. They’ve heard rumors that some divers are known to take an extra compression hose down with them and use the extra air to blow the silt off the clams—a much easier solution than digging for them with neoprene-covered hands.
In addition to monitoring commercial fishermen in boats and divers under the waves, DEM is responsible for keeping an eye on both commercial and recreational shellfish harvesters working from shore.
“We’re involved in almost every aspect of a commercial harvest,” Officer Adam Hill, a 12-year veteran of DEM’s Environmental Police, said over the phone.
What constitutes illegal harvest?
Well, it depends on what you’re doing and where you’re doing it. For commercial harvesters, anyone who is shellfishing unlicensed, with an expired license, or trying to sell their haul without a license runs afoul of the rules. If they do have a license, they may not exceed the permitted daily catch limit. If they’re taking in only their allotted amount, all their shellfish must be within size restrictions.
It may sound like a lot, but, for the most part, commercial harvesters are happy to follow the rules. “Like any industry, 90 percent are honest guys trying to make a living,” says Snow.
Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association President Mike McGiveney agrees. “Illegal harvesting of shellfish can damage the sterling reputation Rhode Island has in regards to the quality and safety of its shellfish,” he says. “Fortunately, this activity has been greatly reduced over the years due to increased awareness by the shellfishermen of its dangers and stiffer penalties given if one was to be caught by DEM enforcement officers. Currently, the vast majority of shellfishermen understand the importance of maintaining Rhode Island’s reputation of having the highest quality shellfish.”
Nevertheless, it’s that last small percent that can cause trouble.
“If we run into violations commercially, it’s willfully and knowingly breaking the rules,” said Hill. “These guys are held to a higher standard because it could become a public health issue.”
When shellfishermen sell their goods, they’re required to tag them from the area they harvest. They then sell their stock to a dealer, who will, in turn, sell to the public. Dealers must keep those tags on file for 30 days, partially to help track any outbreaks in case people get sick.
Enforcement in relation to public safety is strict. For smaller infractions, like a lapsed license or undersized catch, officers will likely issue a ticket or sometimes just a warning if it’s a first offense. But anyone found harvesting at night will be fined up to $1,000, face up to three years in prison, or both.
According to the state’s shellfish management plan, fishing at night is a “serious offense” that can even bring felony convictions. This is because night shellfishing has been one way for scofflaws to harvest from closed areas and sell to unscrupulous dealers or unwitting consumers.
“It is a serious public health risk when a poacher uses the cover of darkness to take shellfish from a polluted area,” says Kurt Blanchard, deputy chief of DEM’s Division of Law Enforcement. “Additionally, if we were to have an illness-related event, not only does the consumer suffer but our industry suffers an economic hardship.”
Stringent law enforcement efforts over the last several decades sharply curtailed such activity, but not without some resistance, Blanchard says, recalling back in the 1980s “organized groups doing counter-surveillance on our officers’ homes and setting up lookouts, all in an effort not to get caught.”
In her book, Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage: An Ecological History, author Sarah Schumann discusses the state’s infamous “quahog pirates” of decades ago:
“The ongoing battle of wits and wills between [quahog pirates and enforcement] gave rise to all manner of daring exploits—ramming of boats, high-speed chases, sting operations, and more. Pirate quahoggers sometimes wore masks while digging or repainted their boats with a different color every night to avoid identification. At least one had his wife push his catch to the dealer in a baby carriage, disguised as an infant, to escape notice. Some dealers turned a blind eye to the origin of the quahogs they bought.”
Though the quahog pirates are largely a thing of the past, one of the biggest shellfish enforcement stories of the last decade happened in 2015. Two men were charged with stealing oysters from a Narragansett oyster farm. The farm’s owner chased the men by boat, only to miss catching them as they docked their skiff and fled on foot, though two suspects were later apprehended.
Jackman says he thinks there’s another reason people are less likely to lay it all on the line with crazy schemes—there’s a lot less opportunity for it.
“A lot of the places these guys used to go [to illegally harvest] in the ’80s are just much more built up,” said Jackman. “They’re better lit, there’s more marinas, and more people. So, is it happening? Probably. But it’s not as common.”
Snow says dealers know they’ll lose their livelihoods if they take illegally harvested product. So, he said what’s happening is direct deals to restaurants or direct sales to consumers. If you’re someone with 12 bushels of ill-gotten shellfish, how would you get rid of it? The internet, of course.
One way these illegal shellfishermen are getting rid of their stock is by reaching out to their buyers online. You can actually troll Craigslist and find ads for bushels of quahogs. The Marine Police have had a couple of successful stings, catching people who post their illegal catch online.
“You’ll see a post on Craigslist, or even Facebook Marketplace,” says Snow. As Snow described, the stings are pretty straightforward: officers find the post, call the phone number in the ad, plan the meetup, and boom! Compromised shellfish off the streets.
With only 14 officers on DEM’s Marine Patrol, they’re spread thin. “We wear a lot of hats; shellfishing enforcement is just one small piece of that,” says Hill, even though Rhode Island’s shellfishing and aquaculture industry brings in millions of dollars annually.
Recognizing its importance, the state agencies that manage the shellfish resource called for the development of a shellfish management plan, which Rhode Island Sea Grant and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Resources Center (CRC) spearheaded.
The plan, which includes enforcement and regulatory policies, was formulated with a lot of input from shellfish growers and harvesters, says Azure Cygler, extension specialist for Sea Grant and CRC. The plan “is a living set of action items that the industry helped develop alongside the state agencies and others at the table.”
With limited personnel to cover all of Rhode Island’s marine waters, enforcement officers benefit from the collaborative spirit embodied in the plan.
The patrol unit relies heavily on tips called in from the public and from fellow shellfishermen, says Snow. The industry is good about policing itself, he adds. “If someone is screwing up, someone else is going to report them.”
by Emily Greenhalgh
Photographs by Jesse Burke