5Q: Sarah Schumann


1 What inspired you to write “Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage: An Ecological History?”

The idea came from the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center, Coastal Institute, and Sea Grant, and I was honored that they chose me as the writer. What I’ve wanted to do, ever since I was 20, was to be a commercial fisherman. And although I’ve worked as a deckhand and have my own commercial shellfishing license, I still have a long way to go before achieving success in that department. The only thing I have ever been inexplicably, naturally good at is writing. So the book was a serendipitous chance to combine what I’m good at with what I love.

2 How has the shellfishing industry changed in the last century?

Dramatically. For instance, I always thought there was nothing more “Rhode Island” than the quahog. But in researching the book, I learned that before the 1940s, Rhode Island was an oyster state. A sequence of changes, [including] siltation of the bay due to suburban development and a surplus of young veterans after World War II, led to Narragansett Bay turning from prime oyster to prime quahog habitat.

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3 What’s the biggest challenge facing the shellfishing industry?

There are very few young people getting into the industry, and the average age of a license holder is in the 50s. I wonder what will be left of the industry when I’m that age.

4 Is it difficult to break into the industry?

Yes and no. One of my favorite things about the quahoggers I know is their generosity with their knowledge. They realize that without new blood, the industry will shrink to a point of nonviability. In fact, the R.I. shellfishermen’s association started a new apprenticeship program to train students in the trade. That means a lot in terms of social support. But there are other big hurdles, such as obtaining a license. You either have to win one in the state lottery or buy one from a retiring fisherman.

5 Why should Rhode Islanders care about the shellfish industry?

Shellfishing is succeeding at what the rest of the world only dreams about: small businesses making a go of it on their wits and wills; freedom, self-sufficiency, and closeness to the natural rhythm of things. And yet despite this, many Rhode Islanders see shellfishing as an anachronism. I’d like to see us begin to value shellfishing not just as part of our heritage but as part of our future. •

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