By ecoRI News staff
Access to prime Ocean State shellfishing areas has been expanded under the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s annual shellfish harvesting reclassification. Among the changes, which take effect May 27, restrictions on portions of upper Narragansett Bay — in place for the past 70 years — will be lifted.
Also, all of Cormorant Cove on Block Island will be open to shellfishing for the first time in a decade, and the seasonal closure of Greenwich Bay will be eliminated.
“Through the efforts of DEM, the Narragansett Bay Commission and many partners, we have made incredible progress in cleaning up Rhode Island’s waters,” DEM director Janet Coit said. “Once overwhelmed by raw sewage and other pollution, today our bays, rivers, and coastal waters are cleaner and healthier. The benefits of this to our environment, economy, and families are immeasurable. As a result of strong laws and investments such as the combined sewer overflow project, fishers and families have expanded opportunities to harvest and enjoy delicious, wild shellfish. This is a momentous day for Rhode Island, a day we celebrate progress in restoring water quality, and welcome shellfishermen back to historic waters.”
Rhode Island’s local food economy supports more than 60,000 jobs, and the local fishing industry has been, and continues to be, a vital part of the sector. Last year, more than 100 million pounds of seafood arrived to a local port, with an export value of more than $1 billion, according to DEM.
A significant contributor to Rhode Island’s commercial fishing industry, wild harvested shellfish support the livelihoods of hundreds of fishers year-round. More than 28 million quahogs were harvested from Narragansett Bay and local coastal waters last year, contributing some $5.5 million to the economy, according to DEM.
State officials said removing and modifying conditional closures in upper Narragansett Bay was made possible, in large part, to the completion of Phase I and II of Narragansett Bay Commission’s combined sewer overflow project. This investment has led to dramatic improvements in water quality throughout the lower Providence River and upper bay, according to state officials.
As part of the annual reclassification of shellfishing waters, Conditional Area B — 3,712 acres in the upper bay — will change from conditional to approved status. The Conimicut Triangle Conditional Area will also be merged with Conditional Area A, according to DEM.
The area previously identified as Conditional Area B encompassed the waters north of a line from Warwick Point to the Providence Point on Prudence Island, to Poppasquash Point in Bristol, and south of Conditional Area A. The new Conditional Area A generally includes upper-bay waters south of the Providence and Warren rivers and north of a line from the Rocky Point pier to Colt State Park pier.
Also effective on May 27, the new Conditional Area A will close after 1.2 inches of rain. Previously, Conimicut Triangle waters closed at 0.5 inches, and Conditional Area A waters closed at 0.8 inches. A review of historic rainfall data indicates this change will likely increase shellfishing opportunities in the former Triangle area by 85 days annually, according to DEM projections.
Water-quality monitoring, combined with shellfish tissue data, also shows that the lower portion of the Providence River holds potential as a new conditional area in the near future, DEM officials said. Shellfishing has been prohibited in the river for more than 70 years. DEM, along with its partners, will develop a management plan for the area before it’s opened to shellfishing, to ensure the long-term sustainability of the shellfish stock. This work is expected to continue into 2018.
“This news is a great testament to water quality benefits enjoyed by the entire state thanks to the investments of our ratepayers,” Narragansett Bay Commission (NBC) executive director Raymond Marshall said. “In less than ten short years since Phase I of the CSO project went on-line, we have seen water quality in Narragansett Bay improve substantially, and now we witness the end to a seventy-year restriction on shellfishing.”
State officials say investments in infrastructure upgrades have brought marked improvements in water quality. Phases I and II of NBC’s CSO abatement plan has collected and treated 8 billion gallons of dilute sewage that would have been discharged into Narragansett Bay and urban rivers.
NBC is finalizing its plan for Phase III of the CSO project. Upon implementation, further improvements to Upper Narragansett Bay and the Providence, Seekonk and Blackstone rivers are expected, according to state officials.
Consistent with federal requirements, DEM closes some local waters to shellfishing on a seasonal basis due to potential water-quality impacts associated with marinas and mooring fields. The following areas will be closed May 27 through Oct. 10: Bristol Harbor; Dutch Harbor Area, Jamestown; Fishing Cove, Wickford Harbor; Great Salt Pond and Trims Pond, Block Island; Potter Cove, Prudence Island; and Sakonnet Harbor, Little Compton.
In addition, the smaller marina closures in the south coastal ponds and the Kickemuit River will go into effect, along with a new seasonal closure that affects an acre of shellfishing grounds at the marina at Fort Wetherill in Jamestown.
For an interactive shellfishing map, click here.