Ray Huling’s got tiny wood chips in his hair. The author of the recently published Harvesting the Bay: Fathers, Sons and the Last of the Wild Shellfishermen chopped some wood for his parents before meeting at the Harbourside for an interview.
A writer by trade, Huling knows how to work with his hands, just as his father and grandfather did before him. They both raked quahogs, and harvested scallops – the scallops that gave the East Greenwich waterfront its old moniker: Scalloptown.
That name is nearly all that’s left of an industry that once provided a good, if difficult, living for scores of East Greenwich men. There are few shanties left on Water Street these days and only a few men – it’s an industry almost exclusively male – who earn a living quahogging. Like farmers in the mid-20th century, shellfishermen are a dwindling bunch.
Huling uses shellfishing, quahogging in particular, as the template to make his argument that society needs to look to other ways to produce food – to look backward. He argues it’s time to reconsider shellfishing, just as people in their 20s and 30s are now turning to farming. (Consider EG’s own Patrick McNiff, proprietor of Pat’s Pastured at Boesch Farm, who grew up in a Long Island suburb.)
“I think we cannot keep using fewer and fewer people to make more and more food,” says Huling, citing the increased costs in pollution, depleted soils, and energy consumption.
Manual labor is hard work, but Huling says, “Some people do want to work this way. They find real fulfillment working with their hands to produce food. Quahoggers really do love their jobs.”
Huling may not be a quahogger himself, but his love for that way of life is evident. He talks with ease about Greenwich Cove and wealth of quahogs lying under the surface of the water there.
"It’s possible this is the densest population of quahogs on Earth,” says Huling. The area was closed permanently to shellfishing decades ago because the shape of the cove does not allow for pollutants to flush out.
“Because of the closure, it’s loaded with quahogs,” he says. “They’re also extremely well fed because of the level of nitrogen in the runoff." Quahogs in the cove are routinely gathered and “re-planted” in healthier areas of the bay where the pollutants get flushed out quickly.
You might think Huling would be pleased with the naming of Scalloptown Park, the nature preserve that sits atop the old dump at the top of Greenwich Cove. He isn’t.
“Scalloptown is gone. The park memorializes this fishery that doesn’t exist anymore. What would offset that for me would be an investment in the fishermen still here,” he says.
Huling suggests holding a big town clambake every year to celebrate the fishermen working in East Greenwich now. The EGHS graduate (Class of 1992) lives in Massachusetts now, but there's little doubt that's a celebration he'd want to be a part of.