One Square Mile: Bristol's Quahoggers

Oct 11, 2013

Quahoging has long been a major industry in the town of Bristol, situated right on the waterfront.  But as the population of local fishermen ages, and market prices plummet, the industry faces some serious threats.

Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender went out on a boat with a young quahogger to find out more about the town's historic industry.

PJ Russo in his boat off the Bristol Harbor.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“My father’s been doing this for like 40 years now, so I’ve done it kind of my whole life. Both my brothers and my father are quahoggers out of East Greenwich.  They fish out of the other side of the bay.  This is the slip my dad had when I was younger, and I worked on my brother’s boat a few years ago and got my license.  So then I quit my old job and started doing this,” said PJ Russo.

After a good breakfast, Bristol native PJ Russo, heads down to the harbor where his 17 foot fishing boat is moored. 

Once out on the water he has to decide which part of the bay to rake for quahogs.

“Since I started digging I’ve been using that mooring as my place to start my drift.  So when I show up in the morning I’ll basically just to get me in a ball park area of where I’m comfortable catching, and I know there’s a good spot where not many people are out digging,” said Russo.

If the spot he selects delivers, he’ll stay there all day.

Much of this job is just trial and error Russo says, and you learn the bay, the longer you fish it.

“It’s like anything you just get better the longer you do it, that’s why some guys can be out here in their 70’s,” said Russo.

But you’re not going to catch anything without the proper equipment.  For starters, you need a good bull rake – essentially a rectangular basket made of metal bars attached to a pole.

There’s an opening on one side where a single row of metal teeth stick out. 

Those teeth dig through the sand on the bottom of the bay, and scoop up the quahogs. 

The Beast from the Northeast, PJ Russo's bull rake.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“This is what I actually use to get the clams in the boat you know. It’s the beast from the Northeast.  An old Portuguese dude makes them in his basement in Tiverton. He’s been doing it since I was a little kid.  I remember going to his house as a little kid.  And sure enough, I start doing this and guess who you get all your equipment from? The same guy. He’s just way older now,” said Russo.

That scratching noise is the sound of the rake scraping against the bottom, magnified up through the aluminum pole.

“So what’s happening now is the rake just hit the bottom, the teeth aren’t really in the bottom yet. So by wiggling it back and forth the more I go up and down like this, that’s whipping the whole set up so the rake’s going like this front to back,” said Russo.

The back and forth motion digs the rake into the sand, picking up the quahogs.  Moving the rake side to side clears out the sand that gets caught in the rake.

After about 15 minutes, Russo says it’s time to pull the haul up.

He pulls the bull rake out of the water, slowly revealing the cage.  It’s full, but when he dumps it out on the boat, it’s not just clams.

A sorted haul of quahogs.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

“So that was the first fifteen minutes of work today.  So we get spider crabs, this is a duck’s foot, it’s like a different type of clam and the meat’s orange and will make you sick.  Smooth Conch, when this thing gets a little bit bigger they’ll catch it on the conch boat.  This is a moon snail, this thing kills quahogs.  Se we got some rocks here, but a decent amount of littlenecks,” said Russo.

Here’s some quahog lingo: little necks, top necks, chowders.  Those are sizes of quahogs. The little necks are the smallest maybe the size of a child’s fist no smaller than 1 inch long at its widest part.

They’re usually sent to restaurants, and eaten raw on the half-shell.

Top-necks are the next size up, and chowders are the largest, anywhere from 5 inches long to the size of a gorilla fist.  Russo recently caught one that weighed in at 2 pounds.  These are usually chopped up and cooked in chowder.  Hence the name.

The monster chowder, this quahog was weighed in at over a pound.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

Size doesn’t just dictate the way they’re eaten. It dictates the price they fetch.  And the prices, said Russo, have been falling.

“It went from 9 cents apiece to 8 cents apiece for the medium sized quahogs, topnecks. And on the chowders I think it went from 30 cents a pound, to 25 cents a pound, to 20 cents a pound.  So that’s a dramatic difference,” said Russo.

Price is just one of several major problems facing the wild quahog harvesting industry today.

The population of the fishermen is aging, and there are fewer people interested in replacing them. What’s more, the falling prices aren’t doing much to encourage younger people to jump in.

“Who’s to say that if the price weren’t a little bit better all my friends who are underemployed, working for someone who’s disrespectful to them.  All of that is part of the reason I’ll go through all this,” said Russo.

Another issue is the amount of money you need before you can even think about getting into the water. 
You need to buy a boat. 

Even one the size of Russo’s, between 17 and 20 feet, can set you back a few thousand dollars, money that many young people don’t have readily available.

So with a big upfront investment, falling prices and frankly a lot of hard work why would anyone want this job?

“I’ve had good jobs, but I was always making money for someone else.  I’m not benefiting myself in any way.   I’m devoting all my time to someone else, at least now I’m devoting my time to my boat you know?  I just feel like I have the best office around.  It’s five minutes from my house, I tie up right in front of the best spot in my whole town. And to able to bring a product, to be able to go out and bring a product back in and have that be you town, it makes me feel good” said Russo.

Russo reviews his haul for the day.  He’s filled two big buckets. I’m impressed, but he said it definitely wasn’t his best.

“If it’s not working, you just go back and try again tomorrow,” said Russo.

Russo's haul for the day.
Credit John Bender / RIPR