WESTERLY — A human conveyor belt of about 15 people passed bushel bags of quahogs from the back of a town truck down the line to waiting volunteers in boats in Winnapaug Pond Wednesday morning. The boats then motored to the deeper parts of a spawner sanctuary where the quahogs were dropped into the water as part of a shellfish enhancement project.
Potential benefits of the effort include increasing the population of quahogs in the pond for recreational fishermen and improving water quality, since the clams are filter feeders that remove excess nitrogen from waters.
Protected from harvesting in the sanctuary, the adult quahogs are expected to spawn. The spawning clam larvae become plankton that will disperse from the western edge of the pond, where the sanctuary is located, throughout the pond by tidal and wind energy.
"They sink to the bottom, grow a shell and scatter over the whole pond," said Art Ganz, president of the Salt Ponds Coalition.
The coalition teamed with the Westerly Recreation Department, the Narragansett Bay Commission, the Rhode Island Shellfishermen's Association, the state Department of Environmental Management, and the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District on the project.
Over the years, since he established the sanctuary in the 1970s, Ganz said, the pond has also been seeded with scallops and oysters. The effort on Wednesday was the second time quahogs had been put in the pond since 2009 when Ganz retired from his post as DEM's senior supervisory marine biologist.
The Southern Rhode Island Conservation District contributed $1,000 for the purchase of the 100 bushels, or about 5,000 pounds, of quahogs that were deposited into the pond, and three of its staff members assisted Wednesday.
"My board fully supported this idea because it's really important to keep the nursery stocked in our spawning sanctuary so that we have a continual input of new clams for recreational users," said Gina Fuller, manager of the conservation district.
The quahogs were dug up Tuesday from the upper Narragansett Bay in Providence and trucked to the pond in the town vehicle.
The quahog transplant was the brainchild of Nick Celico, a Westerly resident who graduated from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in May, and Julia Beasley, interim director of the Recreation Department.
Beasley, who initiated the Green the Beach campaign shortly after she started working for the department as a coordinator in 2018, looks for a different theme for the campaign each year.
"Every year I pick a project to improve the environmental quality of the town beach area, and that includes Winnapaug Pond, and we decided this year, because of COVID-19, we couldn't do a large public event," Beasley said.
Beasley and Celico had often discussed the beach area, water quality, and challenges posed by littering, she said. During one chat, Beasley said, she spoke with Celico about Green the Beach. At the time she was looking for a theme for the campaign and he was looking for a senior project.
"That's how it came together," Beasley said.
The Green the Beach campaign, Beasley said, illustrates the nexus between the Recreation Department and the town's school system. The beach, she said, draws multi-generational crowds.
"It's really a nice display of collaboration and proves once again that we really are the hub for collaboration and the need for educating the area about the natural resources we have and the need to protect and preserve them or we're going to lose them," Beasley said.
Her commitment to preserving the beach and the pond, Beasley said, grew out of her time as an Olympic rower. "I want to get more people on the water and help them understand that we have such a gem here," she said.
While her time rowing nurtured a connection to nature, it also exposed her to the threat posed by pollution.
"A lot of the passion I have for recreation comes from training all over the country on rivers. I've seen some very beautiful places but I've also seen toxic places that literally took the paint off the boats," Beasley said.
Celico, who served as project manager, said he hoped to accomplish three primary objectives: promote recreation opportunities on the pond, improve the vitality of the pond by purifying the water, and the use of shellfish as a way to educate the community about the pond and its ecosystem.
As a young boy, Celico discovered the fun of hunting for clams, and later in life has made a living, at times, selling quahogs.
"I've been out there digging and raking for clams since I was five years old. I loved it then and then I turned it into an educational pursuit and temporary employment," Celico said.
While the pond is not depleted of quahogs, Celico said, the project will make them more plentiful. He also noted the filtering capability of quahogs and recalled the pond being shut down for recreational fishing in 2019 for a few days due to poor water quality. Scientists believe a single quahog filters about one gallon of water per hour. "Let's say, conservatively, there were 200 quahogs in each bushel. That's an additional 200,000 gallons of water being filtered every hour," Celico said.
The town is getting ready, Celico noted, to embark on a project to dredge part of Winnapaug Pond. He said he hoped the dredge, along with the quahog project, would build a tide of momentum and positive feeling for the pond.
"I look forward to a day when the restaurants in the town serve only clams from Westerly. It could be a point of pride. That's a nice aspiration," Celico said.
State Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, Celico's uncle, and state Rep. Sam Azzinaro were both on hand Wednesday observing the project and encouraging the volunteers. Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, who lives next door to where the boats picked up the quahogs as they were unloaded off the truck, also observed.