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Rhode Island has two groups of shellfishermen. One group digs clams off the bottom of Narragansett Bay. These are the wild harvesters. Many Rhode Islanders call them quahoggers.
The other group grows oysters on small farms, both in the bay and in the salt ponds.
And as Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association said, “The clam market and the oyster market are totally different. For one thing the clam market is flat and the oyster market is growing.”
The future of those markets was among the hot topics discussed by Rheault and others Nov. 14 during a Baird Sea Grant Symposium in Warwick on the shellfish industry. About 150 people attended. Fifteen presenters spoke, covering topics from harvesting and growing Rhode Island shellfish to shellfish management and water quality.
The upward trend with oysters has created a bit of a boom in raw bars across the country. More than 500 different brands of oysters can be found in these businesses. The oysters grown on Rhode Island farms can be found on menus as far away as Colorado.
With clams the tenor is a little different. Rhode Island in the 1970s and 1980s set the tone for the East Coast clam market. Now clam farms in Virginia and Florida do. This shift happened in the 1990s. The price per clam has dropped and never been the same since.
“Once the guys in Virginia and Florida figured out how to grow clams our price has nose-dived,” said Jeff Grant, vice president of the Rhode Island Shellfishermen’s Association. “The big farms controlled the market.”
According to Rheault, the price of a Narragansett Bay quahog in 1990 was about 25 cents per clam. Now it’s about 14 cents. Rhode Island commercial clammers in 2012 harvested $5.15 million in clams. Virginia clam farms sold $26 million worth during the same period, he said. To complicate matters, there are cheap clams coming in from Vietnam going for approximately 9 cents.