Fresh Catch: Why Shellfish May Soon Dominate Local Menus

A new business venture and changing climate mean a new crop of local shellfish may soon be making its way to Rhode Islanders' plates.
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Photo illustration: Getty Images and Emily Rietzel.

Rich Fuka peered through curtains of rain, whipping on thirty-five-mile-per-hour winds, from the dockside doorway of the Narragansett Crab Company. It was 7:30 a.m. and the Aces High was due in with a hold full of Jonah crab.

“Biblical — if it had been snow,” he declared cheerfully.

It was bad enough as it was. A pre-Christmas storm of arctic temperatures, heavy precipitation and gale-force winds was wreaking havoc across the United States. Rhode Island was warm, but the wind and the high tide conspired to push a section of Great Island Road under a foot and a half of water and invade the building’s plywood floor. Point Judith was an angry soup of pallets, planks and other assorted gear that previously occupied the docks.

Despite paralyzed holiday travel, Capt. Ted McCaffrey and his crew had chugged home seventy miles through eight- to twelve-foot seas and wind gusts of fifty miles an hour to land their catch in Galilee.

Fuka spotted the boat’s fire-engine-red hull nosing through the gray and dragged the scale into place.

“OK, here we go.”

Two years ago, Jon Williams, a veteran fisherman and the owner of the Atlantic Red Crab Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, saw an opportunity in a defunct warehouse built over an aged dock in Galilee. Williams, who began harvesting this deep cold-water species in 1996 from a single boat, operates a fourteen-vessel fleet continually traveling from the Canadian border to Cape Hatteras, catching and freezing hagfish for export and crab bait for his main business: harvesting Jonah and deep sea red crabs. In 2007, he opened a crab processing plant to bring his product to market readiness. Atlantic red crabs were a niche fishery, but Williams had worked hard to develop a customer base in the restaurant industry, and later the nation’s largest grocery chain. Today, he sells more than 4.5 million pounds of red crab annually — harvested by his own crews or purchased from other fishermen.

“We had expanded in New Bedford as big as we could get,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of waterfronts and as soon as I saw this, I said, ‘This is where we need to be.’ The state is receptive, and it seemed like a really nice mix of high-end condos, tourist spots and a commercial fleet — everybody sharing the same footprint. I don’t know where you are going to find that at that scale.”

He hired Fuka as his business manager with the task of renovating the facility to off-load, store and process crab and other species brought ashore. The 1948 building once had been the largest fishing co-op on the Eastern Seaboard. More recently, it had been leased by the Ocean State Lobster Company. But the building had sat idle for more than three years by the time Williams purchased it.

“That kind of neglect on a waterfront takes its toll,” says Fuka. “We had a heavy lift just to get everything working.”

In December, Williams purchased the adjacent fuel dock. The future plans include a processing facility and a split dock, with one side dedicated for off-loading and another for product that will be immediately processed.

The state’s crab fishery is comprised of several species, of which Jonah crab is the most prominent. One of the top ten species landed in 2021, the Jonah crab catch has risen nearly eightfold in the last twenty-five years, and Rhode Island crews bring in about 25 percent of the commercial harvest in the United States. In 2021, that amounted to more than 2.1 million pounds, valued at more than $2.5 million, according to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s 2022 fishery management plan. Atlantic rock crab is a distant second, with 78,078 pounds caught and brought ashore here, valued at nearly $69,000. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration does not publicly release landing numbers for deep sea red crab, which is fished under a federal permit, but the quota is 4.5 million pounds.

For fishermen like McCaffrey, Williams’ refurbished facility and entrance into the Rhode Island market smooths the back end of the trip.

“It gives me a full-time purchaser for my product every time I come in. Before that you had to peddle them around here and there to move them. [Williams] has got a directed deal that is waiting to take these,” says McCaffrey, as he runs the winch to bring another load of crab to the rails. “[Access to this facility] means I don’t have to wait on a truck to come take me out. The building’s always going to be here, there will always be staff there — that’s huge — as far as off-loading. Years ago, the truck breaks down, it’s stuck in traffic, something snafued in the communication line and you’re waiting — so this is good.”

Williams’ investment in Galilee coincides with another by the state: the setting aside of $60 million to assure the long-term life of Galilee as a commercial port. Projects include repairs to the south bulkhead area of the port, and in the north bulkhead area, “replacing 1,000 feet of steel bulkhead, replacing heavy-duty docks for large commercial vessels, strengthening many other docks, and raising the height of the bulkhead and docks to combat rising seas and protect against storm surges,” says DEM spokesman Michael Healey.

In addition, DEM contributed $450,000 toward a $1.25 million project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel at the back of the north bulkhead and continue to do so once a decade, as it does the rest of the Point Judith channel, making it easier for large charter and commercial fishing vessels to move in and out of the harbor.

State Port Manager Daniel Costa says the state’s commitment to these infrastructure improvements is key to attracting and retaining businesses like Williams’.

“It’s a benefit to our economy in providing products and jobs,” he says. “It’s our intention to make Galilee a business-friendly place, so he can continue to invest in the Rhode Island fishery.”

Meanwhile, DEM is exploring the possibility of another commercial crab fishery much closer to home. Last year, the agency launched the state’s first blue crab dredge survey. Blue crab, a famous denizen of Maryland waters, have been migrating northward, along with other species, as the climate changes.

“In general, Narragansett Bay, where there is a lot of warming, is transitioning to be something like a mid-Atlantic bay, and as part of that trend, we see species that used to be seasonal visitors are now here year-round,” says David Bethoney, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation. Black sea bass and blue crab, he says, are two examples.

But commercial fisheries management — quotas and other regulations — lag the appearance of a new resource, because “a lot of science has to be done to support the ability to harvest,” he says. Fishermen may be seeing a new-to-
Narragansett Bay species such as black sea bass “in more abundance, encountering more, and catching more, but can’t keep them because the rules haven’t changed to reflect that. When we’re in a time of change, there are a lot of opportunities, but we have to find the balance to survive.”

DEM has been testing its dredge equipment and survey methods, and sampling the bay from December to March to estimate population size and to determine if blue crabs are displaying their typical seasonal behavior, says Katherine Rodrigue, a principal marine biologist with DEM’s Marine Fisheries Division. Blue crabs are dormant in the winter and sort themselves by sex, with the males and juveniles sleeping under the sediment of the upper bay and the females settling themselves in the open waters at the southern end to release their spawn into the ocean come spring. DEM’s first efforts found abundance and the crabs appropriately separated by sex. The question, says Rodrigue, is if Rhode Island winters are mild enough to keep winter mortality low and the surviving population high to support a commercial fishery.  

“We think blue crabs are trending, but it’s variable from year to year. No one has done a comprehensive assessment,” she says. “We do have existing data, but that has to be analyzed to better understand their population dynamics in Narragansett Bay. The winter dredge will allow for more targeted long-term monitoring.”

Come Memorial Day, Williams expects the Narragansett Crab Company to have its official ribbon-cutting, with the processing side of the business up and running by 2024. He has been raising his brand’s profile since the summer of 2021, with a small retail store selling Narragansett Crab Company T-shirts and other paraphernalia, and a food truck featuring crab sandwiches.

On this wild winter day, the Aces High pulls starboard to the dock, and a human conveyor belt forms to move 10,000 pounds of writhing Jonah crabs from the boat’s belly to the gray plastic crates, to the scale, to the pallet, to the waiting truck. The pace is slow, but the Narragansett Crab Company expects everything to pick up considerably when the renovation is complete.

“It’s going to go from zero production to the sky’s the limit,” Fuka says. “And every pound of fish we log credits the landing to Rhode Island, which shows productivity and a working port. It’s a really big deal, and the number continues to climb.” 🆁


Ellen Liberman is an award-winning journalist who has commented on politics and reported on government affairs for more than two decades.