Virus puts freeze on demand for shellfish

By PEDER SCHAEFER
Posted 4/2/20

Jody King’s hands usually dry out from salt water after a day of work on Narragansett Bay, where he rakes quahogs for a living from the sandy bottom around Prudence Island. 

Now, …

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Virus puts freeze on demand for shellfish

Posted

Jody King’s hands usually dry out from salt water after a day of work on Narragansett Bay, where he rakes quahogs for a living from the sandy bottom around Prudence Island. 

Now, King’s hands dry out from using too much Purell. 

His last day of steady quahogging was more than a week ago, when his dealer called to say he couldn’t buy any more clams. These days, King sits at home, waiting for a call to return to work. 

With restaurants shuttered and fish markets in Boston, New York and other East Coast cities closed because of the spread of coronavirus, quahoggers like King have been left with no demand for their product.

“The bay is open, and I can’t go to work,” said King. “This is an absolute first.”

Andrade’s Catch in Bristol usually buys 4,000 to 6,000 clams a day from quahoggers, but after the wholesale business collapsed the shop could only move 1,000 pieces a day selling retail to locals.

“We could make it another month, a month and a half like this, but the fishermen are really at risk,” said Davy Andrade, a part-time owner of the shop. “It takes about $200 a day to run a boat and pay the bills and feed their family, and these guys are pulling in $100 a day if they’re lucky.”

Andrade’s Catch usually buys from a dozen quahoggers this time most years, but the store had to cut back to buying from only six, and Andrade said he only buys a couple hundred clams from each fisherman, trying to keep as many as possible afloat. 

“We try our best to keep care of them and make sure they don’t end up in deep water,” he said. 

At Andrade’s Catch an anonymous donor is buying $600 worth of clams a week to support the shop and local fishermen. With all the extra clams the shop is offering a special—a free pint of shucked clams for every $24 spent at the store. It helps keep the quahoggers in business. 

Quahoggers are not alone. Fishermen across the state, from Warwick to Galilee and every port-of-call in between, have also been hit hard economically by the pandemic.

Perry Raso, owner of the Matunuck Oyster Bar and Farm in South Kingstown, had to lay off most of his staff after the crisis scared away customers. Now, he’s the one shucking oysters for the few orders they receive. 

“Oysters farmers right now, they have to work their farms to make sure the oysters can grow, but without income coming in it makes it very difficult for those businesses to exist,” said Raso.

Fin fishermen are also struggling.

Fred Mattera, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, said that up to 95 percent of the vessels in Point Judith were tied to the dock, fishing hopes scuttled. Larger-scale fisheries like squid were still catching, but the markets for fin fish like scup and sea bass were dead.

Mattera said that fishermen are unable to collect unemployment, unlike most laid-off workers in the crisis. Because fishermen are classified as independent contractors, they can’t collect benefits. 

“Fishermen either go to sea and make an income, or they don’t get any income,” said Mattera. 

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, working with regional fishermen including the Commercial Fisheries Center, is trying to drive up demand by providing more direct access to Rhode Island seafood. The department is striving to connect the fishermen who are still fishing with anyone—local restaurants, private chefs, families—looking for a meal.

“We’re lucky as the Ocean State to have an abundant supply of fresh local seafood,” said Robert Ballou, an assistant to the director at DEM, who is helping coordinate the effort to sell more local fish. “If you don’t see local Rhode Island seafood in your grocery store, ask why.”

To increase demand, DEM has created a website, seafoodri.com, that lists local grocery stores and markets still selling local fish..

“If we can generate a demand it provides more opportunities for fisherman who are tied to the dock to go to sea and generate an income,” said Mattera. 

Lobstermen are the exception. They’re the only group of fishermen allowed to sell directly to consumers, giving them easy access through social media to hungry locals. After a social media push last weekend, hundreds of Rhode Islanders showed up in Galilee, looking for fresh, off-the-boat lobster. Ballou said that DEM has created a new system with the lobstermen involving drive-by pickup to reduce the chance of overcrowding in the future. 

King, the beleaguered quahogger, said that some dealers are starting to buy more clams, but they’re only calling certain quahoggers and giving them quotas. If a shop needs clams, a quahogger will get a phone call the night before. It’s not the steady work King knows. He’s only worked one day the past week. 

“Depending on who you are you get a different deal,” said King. “I’m not gonna hold my breath waiting.”

He waits, washing his hands. 

If you want to support Rhode Island seafood go to seafoodri.com to find grocery stores and markets selling local catch.

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