The Graying of the Bay

Spring/Summer 2019

There’s a statue that stands in the courtyard of the Warwick Public Library. It’s an oversized depiction of a quahogger, rake in hand, two bulging bags of the shellfish by his side, and a Labrador Retriever for company. The statue is called “The Warwick Quahogger: A Day’s Catch.” When the statue was dedicated in 1998, quahogs were plentiful, and there were dozens of shellfishermen making a living from them. Then-mayor Lincoln Chaffee said, “Just as lobsters are to Maine and crabs are to Maryland, the quahog is a symbol of Rhode Island.”

Yet in the decades that followed, there were fewer and fewer boats on the water. The causes were a blend of regulatory changes, fishing ground closures, and indirect contributors like high health care costs. Longtime shellfishermen with families to consider were forced to leave the industry in search of more steady income and medical benefits. For a while, it looked like an entire lifestyle might be lost.

“There’s a whole generation of people that have no idea about how to get into the industry,” says Mike McGiveney, president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association.

Those dwindling numbers are why both the association and the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island have created recruiting and training programs.  Funding for the shellfishing internship program came through the Local Agricultural and Seafood Act Grants Program from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The department’s own data showed that, as of five years ago, the average age of a licensed shellfisherman was 57, which made it even more important to encourage youngsters.

“The idea was to bring young people on the water and show them what it’s like to quahog,” McGiveney says. Participants came from an assortment of backgrounds including law enforcement personnel and military veterans. All were curious but, as McGiveney says, “Frankly, you gotta be young. Personally, I fell in love with quahogging when I was at URI [University of Rhode Island]. I loved working outdoors, being your own boss.”

Evan Adams is one of the youngest recruits to Rhode Island’s commercial fishing apprenticeship program. Photography by Jesse Burke

Some of the grant money paid for applicants to spend the day on the water, providing them with important information. “You’d be surprised to learn what you didn’t know you don’t know,” says McGiveney.

He tells the story of someone who brought his newly acquired boat on the water and proceeded to dig with the wind in the wrong direction. The boat was drifting into the rake, making it nearly impossible to dig. That’s the sort of rookie error that can be avoided if someone has been out with a seasoned veteran.

“Things like having the proper length of pole for digging, picking an area to dig depending on the weather, and which waters are closed because of the rain,” McGiveney explains.


How Many Licenses are Enough?

Once a candidate decides he or she would like to become a shellfisherman, the next step is to obtain a license. John Lake, marine supervising biologist with DEM, says his office works closely with an advisory committee of fishing industry representatives to decide how many licenses will be given out each year.

“We generally take a lot of advice on issuing licenses.” Each year, Lake reviews the number of inactive (retired) licenses. The norm from some years past was that for every two licenses retired, DEM issued one new license. However, the past two years have seen the ratio changed to 1:1, and Lake says 33 new licenses went out in each of those years. Further alterations may be in the works, with the possibility of issuing two licenses for every one turned in.

“We make our decisions based on what response we get from the industry,” Lake says. “We don’t like to see abrupt change. If we issue too many licenses, the industry says the prices are down too far, and if too few, the supply line is changed.”

Until recently, all licenses had to be renewed by the end of February, but, McGiveney says, “We found that kids weren’t really thinking about what to do during the summer in February. We went through the legislature and changed the deadline for student licenses to June 30. That was done with the idea of getting more young people into the industry.”

Lake says DEM fully supports getting more people into the business. “I do think the internship program is a great idea. Right now, after two years with a student license, you’re eligible for a commercial license (which allows the license holder to work more months of the year). There’s actually been discussion that perhaps next year we should change that to being active for just one year, to really facilitate getting that license and give them that opportunity to get in.”

Keeping the numbers of shellfishermen steady benefits more than the individual industry members themselves, says McGiveney.

“Shellfishermen are part of the economic and social fabric of various harbors and marinas. There are a number of mechanics and shop owners who say that if it weren’t for the shellfishing industry, they’d have to lay people off or shut their doors during the wintertime. In the case of the marinas, people like us because we’re a second set of eyes. If a dock breaks off or thievery occurs, we’re out there and can help.”

Hey, Can You Take Me Fishing?

Shellfishing is not the only commercial fisheries sector with an aging demographic.

“For the longest time the talk [among fishermen] was about overregulation. Then, about two or three years ago, all that changed. It became ‘Do you know anyone who can go fishing? You know any young crews?’” says Fred Mattera, retired commercial fisherman and executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, describing an emerging need in the trawl fishery and other sectors.

“It prompted me to think that we should start an apprenticeship program. I know a lot of guys who came up through the fishing ranks at the same time that I did; there are boats where the crew’s average age is 50, 60 years old. We call them graybeards. There’s just not an awful lot of youth.”

Still, fishermen don’t want to hire just anyone.

“The problem is, you have a greenhorn come down to the dock and say, ‘Hey, can you take me fishing?’ The first thing the captain will say is, ‘Have you been fishing before and on what boats?’ ‘I’ve never been fishing before, this is my first time.’ Even though you need people, you don’t want to babysit.” A captain hiring a “greenhorn” is faced with someone with no experience, unproven reliability, and one challenge even the most sincere candidates may not be aware of. “I would say that 50 to 60 percent of the people I’ve taken out end up seasick and never want to go out again.”

“We wanted people who were committed”

Mattera says “an economic lull in the fishery as we’ve gone through the [stock] rebuilding periods” was in part to blame for the declining numbers. “You get less and less access to fish, so it’s hard to attain a good steady income. With that came a steady exit of crew members. But actually, fishing has improved in the last several years. Some species have really become prolific.”

The realization that there were more boats than crew members sparked the next move. “I started to talk to more and more people, we started talking to the state, and I came to the fisheries center here. We submitted a grant application to National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and we received the funding for an apprenticeship program,” which, Mattera says, became the first of its kind on the East Coast.

The process of interviewing applicants was, by Mattera’s description, a rigorous one. “We wanted people who were committed, not just young people who wanted to try fishing for the summer. We wanted to know that you were in this for the long term, that you were in it to be a commercial fisherman.”

In its first year, the program had a dozen individuals, most of whom were in their 20s. Ten stayed for the duration. The graduates included two women who are still working.

That phase was successful enough to prompt further discussion about continuing the program. Meetings were held with DEM Director Janet Coit and with representatives from the governor’s office and Real Jobs Rhode Island, from the Department of Labor and Training. Together, they hammered out an application for last year’s funding. The application was granted, and in 2018, the program trained 15 people.

Fishing Bootcamp

The four-week program included topics like safety, which ran for seven days and put students through their paces with using flares, fighting fires, and keeping watch. Three days were spent mending twine, splicing, and knot tying. Time was spent learning the finer points of diesel engines. Still more with welding. There was basic seamanship, which included teaching the proper nomenclature, how to go up and down ladders, and throwing dock lines. Mattera says the group did well. “They liked it, they liked the challenge. They wanted to get better and better. There was good clean competition.”

One of the biggest challenges was charting a course without electronics. “We gave them a map with a last known position, and no GPS, no nothing. ‘Here’s your last known position, take parallel rules, dividers, use them to find the compass rose, and draw me a line and give me a heading.’”

They also spent two to three days at sea, working at trawling and lobstering. Students chose the type of fishing they wanted to do, and Mattera found boats that would take them out.


Replenishing the Stocks

Mattera compares the sustenance of the industry to replenishing fish stocks: “You have to start with the young, and they will come up through the ranks. Five or 10 years down the road, they’re ready to become captains and own their own boat. There are an awful lot of guys in their 50s who are ready to pass the baton to the next generation. All you’re looking for is some vigorous, driven individuals … And it’s not just a Rhode Island thing. I’ve had calls from all over New England just begging for qualified help.”

“I love [the program],” Mattera continues. “It’s hard to believe that 40-something years ago I was just like them. You grow with this, and you see those who are naturals, you see some who you’ll have to work with a bit, and you see those who you wonder whether they’ll ever make a go of it. It’s inspiring to me. There’s nothing that makes you feel better than hearing about one of your guys coming back after three or four days at sea and the captain’s calling and saying they’re absolutely outstanding. We taught them well.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if I’m around here in 10 years and a half dozen of these kids have their own boats? The opportunities are right here!”

By Hugh Markey
Photographs by Jesse Burke


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