Shellfishing lessons this summer from the ‘King’

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“Rhode Island is synonymous with shellfish,” according to Jody King.

He has some expertise. He has been shellfishing in Narragansett Bay for the last 25 years.

For the last eight years, King, of Oakland Beach, has taught public workshops on how to clam and quahog. The Department of Environmental Management has sponsored the “Come Clam With Me” workshops since 2015. From 2001 to 2016, King was part of a summer program at Brown for high school students who were studying environmental science.

While King is compensated as a teacher, he could make more money if he was on the water. So, why do it?

“The [amount of] information I have after 25 years of shellfishing as a living is huge. I have no way of giving it back. I don’t have any biological children so I need to impart this information on as many people as I can.”

After teaching for so many years, King has had some high profile students, including Gov. Gina Raimondo and her family.

“I’ve taken three senators and two mayors out on my boat to get them to understand my industry.” King said.

He is an advocate for shellfishermen. King is the former head of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, a position that requires election. He has also held several positions appointed by the state related to the shellfishing industry.

His efforts have changed some laws. For example, King’s boat is fitted with an electric winch that pulls his full rake from the water. In the past, this technology was not allowed.

King said, “Without this piece of equipment, I would have had to retire 15 years ago.”

 King has been a shellfisherman for most of his life. His love of shellfishing goes back to his childhood. His father worked a lot, but he would take Jody and his three brothers to the beach on his few days off.

“My dad would take me and my brothers to Rocky [Point] Beach and he would tell us, ‘Don’t go past that street and don’t come back until your buckets are full.’”

King emphasized that law in Rhode Island says any citizen can go to areas that are deemed safe by the Department of Environmental Management to dig for shellfish.

“If you’re a Rhode Islander you have an inalienable right to go out and dig clams seven days a week… How could you go hungry in this state?”

Despite the number of people King teaches, the industry is lacking the young people it will need in the future. At 58 years old, King says he is the average age for fisherman in the Narragansett Bay. He gestured to his palms, covered in calluses, blisters and scars.

“Kids don’t want hands like these. I love, love, love my job. One more year and the bay has paid for my house. But that bay dictates how long I can work. It’s a very physical job.”

As for equipment, King recommends a shovel or a jerk rake, a bucket, rubber gloves and rubber boots. Of course, they also need to know how to shellfish. The equipment is affordable in comparison to a commercial shellfisherman. The motor alone for King’s boat costs $15,000 to $18,000 and needs to be replaced every five years.

The DEM Fish and Wildlife Division is responsible for issuing licenses every year for commercial fishing. The number of new licenses for quahogs and soft shell clams are fairly steady. Renewed licenses for shellfish did see a small drop between 2018 and 2019 from 503 to 459. However, there is a waitlist for new commercial licenses.

 “These licenses are highly sought after, with 230 applicants applying in 2019,” said Gail Mastrati from the DEM.

The annual value of wild harvest shellfish is estimated to be $6.5 million. That value comes from the RI Shellfish Initiative’s data.

There will always be shellfish in the Ocean State, because hatcheries and aquaculturists grow them. According to the Shellfish Initiative, the hatcheries have an estimated value of $5.51 million. But, to see how people have been harvesting quahogs for hundreds of years, you have to spend some time with a real shellfisherman.

King will be teaching six “Come Clam With Me” classes this summer. Two will be at Rocky Point State Park on Tuesday, July 30 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Friday, August 30 from 12 to 3 p.m. A class was held Monday at North Kingstown Town Beach in North Kingstown with a second planned for September 28 from 12 to 3 p.m. Two will be at Colt State Park in Bristol, one on Tuesday, July 2 from 12 to 3 p.m. and a second Thursday, August 1 from 1 to 4 p.m. The classes require pre-registration. To register go to the DEM website and follow the instructions there. The cost to register is $5 per person over 8 years old.

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