Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective





Saltwater Cornucopia

The public's right to the free and common fisheries of Narragansett Bay was confirmed in the King Charles Charter of 1663. When the Rhode Island Constitution was adopted, many years later, the language of the charter was picked up and reinforced. In effect, the state ownership and management of the fisheries and shellfisheries for the public good were assured. With the approval of the state, residents could take fish and shellfish up to the limits of mean high tide, the point at which private ownership begins.

Although a few oyster leases at $1 per acre were negotiated earlier, it was not until 1864 that new state statutes governing the leasing of sections of the Bay bottom for private oyster cultivation were adopted. All other forms of fish and shellfish continued to belong to the public fishery, as they do today.

The oyster business was once the Bay's most notable fishery. Native oysters had been found in great numbers in the coves, salt ponds, and tributaries from the time of the first settlements. They were so common that residents of East Greenwich had to be enjoined by legislative act and fine in 1734 from burning them to produce lime. In 1766, a conservation measure was passed prohibiting harvest except by hand tongs.

Throughout the period when the Bay developed into a major recreational resource, a group of shore residents pursued a living on the waters of the Bay, quietly and independently for the most part but noisily if their rights were threatened. Fishermen had worked the Bay since man first settled along its shores. Oars sufficed for power among the quahaug fishermen. Oystermen and scallopers started with hand tongs or sail-powered dredges and gradually shifted to engines. Dredges, tongs, bullrakes, seines, trawling nets, fish traps, and lobster, crab, and conch pots are about the same in design and materials as they were in the nineteenth century.

The biggest change for the small fishermen was the outboard motor, so recent that shortly after World War II the owner of an outboard-powered skiff would leave Apponaug or Greenwich Cove in the morning towing a half-dozen work skiffs belonging to other fishermen who had only oars. The power take-off or drum linked with the engine permitted the pot fishermen their gear with less exertion and handle more pots in a day. The offshore fishing fleet, which now principally operates out of Galilee on Point Judith, uses a variety of hydraulic power assistance these days, but not much is different except for the speed with which the fishermen get to and from their fishing grounds.

Shortly after the Civil War, substantial commercial operations began to evolve, and Narragansett Bay oysters gained a reputation among the gourmets. In 1879, one could visit any number of wholesale houses and purchase select Virginia transplants for $ 1 to $ 1.25 a bushel in the shell or $1.25 a gallon opened, and natives in the shell for $ 1.25 to $1.50 a bushel.

In 1912, the state leased 21,000 acres, most of it for $10 a year per acre. The peak production year was 1908, when the growers marketed 8.7 million pounds of oysters. When growers found that some sections in the Bay had the best conditions of temperature, salinity, and nutrient supply for fattening oysters, they would dean starflsh and debris from firm bottom in the area and then bring in young two-year-old oysters from areas of heavy propagation.

Then the growers began to buy outside the state, relying in particular on juveniles from the James River section of Chesapeake Bay to supplement the native "sets," or "spat." Others came from Buzzard's Bay, Fire Island, and Long Island Sound. Eventually, the native stocks proved totally insufficient, and almost all of the juvenile oysters came from out of state—after 1914, almost entirely from Long Island Sound. After two years on Narragansett Bay beds, the oysters attained optimum growth of meat in relation to shell size and were brought to the shucking houses.

The Bay was considered by commercial oystermen as a great place for growth but not for recruitment (restocking). Only a few estuaries produce prodigious amounts of spat, and the James River is one of the best.

Transplant operations were delicate affairs. The young oysters were fragile, and mortality could be high. In 1880, in the course of a survey of Rhode Island fisheries, Howard Clark talked to one grower who each spring brought in young oysters from the Chesapeake. This man insisted on transporting his cargo by sailboat only, to avoid the mortality the vibration of an engine could cause.

When the matured four-year-olds were ready for harvesting, the growers signed on additional employees as shuckers. These skilled individuals used special, curved tools called "side knives," and could open the shell and remove the meat in virtually one continuous movement of the arm. Up until 1952, when the last oyster firm on the Bay, the Warren Oyster Company, closed its doors, the bivalves were still opened in this manner. A Warren newspaperman, the late Charles L. Hughes, used to organize periodic matches between the Narragansett Bay openers with their "side knives" and the Chesapeake Bay "crackers," who at that time used a small hammer to break the edge of the shell before inserting a knife to remove the oyster. Invariably, the "side knife" team won and one of the men was declared the "world's champion oyster opener."

Productivity was by no means assured to the growers once the beds were cleared and young oysters spread out on the hard bottom. Natural predators such as starfish had been a problem as early as 1850, and as leased grounds increased so did the starfish.. Starfish eradication programs were conducted under state auspices at times, and the bigger firms used raveled rope "mops" which were dragged over the beds to entrap the starfish in their strands. In the 1880s, exceptional growth of mussel beds became a problem. The mussels grew in such profusion on the shells of the oysters that they smothered the stocks. And tiny snails called "oyster drills" did their drilling. Human poachers were always nearby, many of them interpreting the old royal charter provisions for "free and common" fisheries as moral justification for stealthy nighttime tonging or dredging across leased grounds. The growers responded with shotgun-armed guards in boats anchored all night on the beds.

The oystermen marked their leaseholdings with buoys or stakes, drawing opposition from boatmen who viewed the markers as menaces to navigation. In some ways they were. In 1899, the Rhode Island Commissioners of Shellfisheries created; regulations requiring that cedar poles with bushy tops be used as anchored buoys. They could be no more than two and a half feet long and up to three inches in diameter. The bushy tops would be above water and visible and the size of the buoys would be small enough to create no navigational hazard. In later years, even after World War I, it was frequent practice, however, to force long slender stakes directly into the bottom in shallow sections of the Bay rather than use anchors, and these occasionally would break off so that they were just below the surface at high tide. It was possible to rip out the thin bottom of a high-speed outboard boat on such a hidden spear point.

The end of the oyster business on Narragansett Bay for a variety of reasons was never fully documented. There were the natural predators, the poachers, a few years of poor spat in Long Island Sound, the spread of pollution in the Providence River, and the shifting of silts and other sediments over prime beds by the hurricane of 1938. (In that hurricane, a barge with $2 million worth of spat went down at the mouth of the Bay, all but wrecking one commercial operation.) Whatever the cause, a colorful chapter in the life of the Bay closed in 1952. However, there is still hope that present-day aquaculture may repopulate the Bay with oysters.

The relative importance of the various components of the Bay's fishery resources has changed through the years. For about half a century, oysters dominated in terms of financial return. Today the quahaug is the leader. Both inside and outside the Bay through all of the nineteenth century and the first 30 years of the twentieth century, fish traps landed the majority of the finned fish used for food. Today the offshore trawler fleet is by far the most productive, an indication perhaps of the part engines have played in transforming the fishing industry. Fishermen don t have to wait for fish to arrive on seasonal migration; they can now sweep the oceans for them.

Prior to 1880, the menhaden fishery was more important than the food fishery. Fish for fertilizer and enrichment of animal feed was more valuable than fish used for direct human consumption. In 1860, for example, Rhode Island fishermen landed 118,611 barrels of menhaden and other fertilizer fish to the value of $27,817. Food fish landings were worth only $25,000; shellfish and lobsters, $ 11,692. Farmers harvested salt hay from the marshes, worth more than all of the shellfish that were marketed, and reaped a bonanza in driftwood, collecting more than 34,000 cords, worth $37,604.

Five years later, with the Civil War at an end, more intense fisheries activity produced $126,035 worth of menhaden, $121,094 of food fish, and $118,655 of clams, scallops, oysters, and lobsters. The driftwood and salt hay collections still were significant, amounting to more than $66,000. By 1880, oysters began to lead the statistics; 163,200 bushels were harvested, worth $256,925 out of a total fishery of more than $880,000.

The center of the menhaden fishery was in Portsmouth, where a large processing plant operated for many years. Newport was the focal point for the trap fishermen and a few of the larger offshore fishermen. In 1880, 166 fish traps were set around the Bay and just outside it, and of the 2,300 men working in the fisheries 608 were employed on menhaden operations. Many of these worked on the fish traps in spring and fall and seined for menhaden in the summer. In 1910, the number of fish traps had risen to 400, but today only a handful are still utilized, principally at Sakonnet Point, off the Newport shore, and along Narragansett coast. None are set inside the Bay.

The migratory soup, or porgy, always accounted for the largest volume of food fish caught in the traps. In 1880, for instance, out of more than 10,000,000 pounds of food fish landed, 7,000,000 pounds were soup. That same year, by contrast, 68,000,000 pounds of menhaden were landed. In recent years, although the numbers have fluctuated, soup are still important to the remaining trap fishermen, while menhaden have decreased in importance.

Although oyster beds, trap fisheries, and menhaden seining were the backbone of the Rhode Island seafood industry for many years, there were other important fisheries. In 1880, Newport had a fleet of 50 cat-rigged boats at work on lobsters.

There were 2,857 lobster and eel pots in the Bay. At Block Island, a fleet of 23 boats worked up to 30 miles offshore long-lining for cod, as did 50 smaller boats which worked closer to the island. The 23 were the famed Block Island double-enders, or "cowhorns. "These were open craft about 25 feet in length with two unstayed masts well forward. They carried a crew of three or four and could work in almost any weather or sea conditions. Many salty tales are told about the ability of the double-enders and their hard-bitten crews to make port in fearsome gales.

Inside the Bay, shellfishing supported a considerable group of boatmen and shore diggers. Greenwich Bay was the center of the scallop fishery, and Rocky Point, north of Warwick Neck, was the leader among a score of shore resorts in mass production of clambakes and shore dinners. Rocky Point operated its own steamboat, with a crew of 16 to 20, which set out daily to gather clams for crowds of up to 10,000.

Trap landings of 1880 provide a good cross-section of the fisheries of the period. Included were alewives, sea bass, striped bass, tautog, bluefish, cod, eels, flounder. mackerel, white and yellow perch, salmon, soup, shad, smelts. squeteague, and swordfish.

Today salmon have disappeared, the numbers of alewives and shad are greatly reduced, and squeteague are far fewer in number. The Bay's menhaden fishery fluctuates from year to year. Among the shellfish, the oysters are gone, scallops are few, lobsters are still in residence, soft-shell clams can be found but in diminished quantities. 9uahaugs appear to have held their own and have probably increased.

It is unwise, however, to state flatly that certain species are gone for good or are about to disappear. Both food stocks and predators are subject to cyclical variations, environmental factors change, and fishing pressures increase and decrease. Nevertheless, it would seem that in general the Bay today provides a less varied and dependable fare for the palates of those who live along its shores.


Next Chapter: Navy in Residence |  Table of Contents