In Rhode Island, a hunt is on for the reason for dropping numbers of the signature quahog clam


In Rhode Island, a hunt is on for the reason for dropping numbers of the signature quahog clam

The clam itself is a staple of clam chowders and in 1987, the Rhode Island Legislature designated the quahog the official “Rhode Island State Shell.”

By STEVE LeBLANC, Associated Press


October 25, 2023 | 8:16 AM

Scientists, lawmakers, and those who make their living from Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay are teaming up to hunt for the reason why quahogs appear to be on the decline.

Quahogs have a long history in the state. The shells of the large, hard-shelled clam were used by the indigenous Narragansett people as wampum. The clam itself is a staple of clam chowders and in 1987, the Rhode Island Legislature designated the quahog the official “Rhode Island State Shell.”

On Tuesday, a special Rhode Island legislative commission held a hearing to study the reduced catch. The commission is looking at a range of possible factors that may be contributing to a loss of the signature shellfish, from oxygen deficiency to changing aquatic life and climate change.

Quahogs — also known as little necks or cherry stones or chowder clams — are filter feeders drawing nutrients out of water columns. They don’t move much other than the first 2 to 3 weeks of their lives when they are larvae, according to Conor McManus, of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

Quahogs will traditionally start spawning in mid-June first in coves along Narragansett Bay and progress through the season. A second large spawning can occur in July.

There was a peak in the harvest of quahogs in the 1950s before the dredging of the clams was banned. There was a second peak in the 1980s reflecting an improvement in water quality in the upper bay.

“Since then, we’ve seen a dramatic decline,” McManus said.

There’s also been a decline in the number of people trying to harvest quahogs from historical highs of more than 1,000 people down to about 400 people a decade or so ago, and now down to 150 to 200 people, he said.

McManus said the hunt for an answer to the quahog decline is complex. As an example, he pointed to events that might cause a drop in oxygen in the water.

Typically, those hypoxia events are seen as a negative for organisms, but there is also a competing theory that such episodes could help quahogs because it might force away potential predators.

“Over the course of a quahog’s life there is a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Jim Boyd, a shellfisherman, said that less than half the number of quahogs is being harvested from Narragansett Bay compared to a decade ago and he and others who rely on quahogs need answers.


To the industry, it’s pretty clear that while there may be many factors for the drop, the primary driver is the reduction in nutrients needed for quahogs to thrive, he said.

“We really need the department and the universities to focus on this question for us because this industry is taking a significant hit over the last decade and our concern is that this is going to continue in the coming years,” Boyd said. “We’re seeing this slow, methodical decline in the abundance of quahogs throughout the bay.”

Other states along the Atlantic coast have also experienced declines in both quahogs as well as also oysters, bay scallops and soft-shell clams, according to McManus.

Quahogs feed on plankton. That also makes them key to the environment since plankton feeds on nitrates, which water treatment plants can’t filter out, making quahogs a natural source for filtering impurities out of the water, as well as being a sought-after food.

The commission is charged with reporting back to lawmakers by May 31, 2024.

RI Food



Served in the shell, stuffies are baked stuffed clams with lots of breading and butter. This Rhode Island food is so iconic that a seven-foot version of it is being placed in airports around the country to attract visitors to the Ocean State.

Clam Cakes

A deep-fried fritter made with chopped clams, clam juice and a flour base. They have a similar consistency to a hush puppy after they're fried and are more cakey than say a crab cake.

RI-style Calamari

Take a basic calamari appetizer (batter and fried squid) and toss it in butter, garlic and hot peppers, and you get Rhode Island-style calamari. The dish is the official state appetizer.

RI Clam Chowder

A lighter take on clam chowder than the New England or Manhattan versions, Rhode Island clam chowder skips the cream and the tomatoes giving it a clear broth.

Lobster Roll

Sure, Maine gets a lot of credit for their lobster rolls, but Rhode Island's are every bit as good. As a state, we're not picky about if they're warm or cold. We just like them with an ocean view.

New York System Wiener

We know, it says New York in the name, but we promise this is a Rhode Island thing. The weiners – which are a mix of beef, pork and veal – come in a natural casing that makes a 20-foot rope that the restaurants has to cut to size by hand. Once in the bun, it's covered in a spicy sauce that includes onions and ground meat.


If you're really from Rhode Island, you'll pronounce it "grindah" and forget about the r. This Rhode Island favorite is a sandwich made with Italian cold cuts, pickles and other vegetables put on a grinder roll. You can mix up the cold cuts, but they have to stay in the salumi family.


A Woonsocket classic, the dynamite sandwich is a type of sloppy joe-like sandwich served in a torpedo roll with a spicy sauce often made in batches large enough to feed a crowd.

Pizza Strips

Also called a party pizza, red strips or a bakery pizza, a pizza strip is a rectangular strip of pizza, served on a crust that would be best described as focaccia, topped with tomato sauce and often a dusting of grated Romano cheese. It’s served at room temperature. 


Similar to a pancake, the main difference is Johnnycakes are made with stone-ground cornmeal. A staple at May Breakfasts across the state, they're very easy to make.

Pepper biscuits

An Italian treat, a pepper biscuit is a simple biscuit flavored with fennel and pepper rolled out into a log before being twisted into a round. The crunchy snack pairs well with a glass of wine.


A treat traditionally served on St. Joseph's Day, zeppole resembles a flattened cream puff, filled with cream and topped with more cream and a cherry. Traditional ones are filled with pastry cream. Others are made with ricotta cheese, chocolate cream or whipped cream and fruit.

Coffee Milk

For those who didn’t grow up drinking coffee milk from cartons in elementary school, coffee milk is exactly what it sounds like: milk mixed with a sweet coffee syrup.  The drink was invented in Rhode Island, sometime in the 1930s.  

 Del's Lemonade

Never drink it with a straw! Del's Lemonade is a frozen lemonade with roots in European fruit ices. Perfectly refreshing on a summer beach day, lemon is the classic flavor but the brand offers many others.


Awfully close to the fried dough you might find at any old state fair, but better because of their smaller, more manageable pillow shape. Cover these in sugar and cinnamon for maximum happiness.

Explaining the ‘stuffie,’ a uniquely Rhode Island food that’s trying to attract tourists



The stuffed quahog is part of Rhode Island's latest campaign to draw in new visitors. But what exactly is a stuffie?

Massachusetts is known for its seafood. More specifically, clam chowder, fried clams, and oysters, and the food is just one of the reasons why millions of visitors come to the Bay State every year.

But what about the rest of New England? Like, Rhode Island, for example? Also known for its seafood scene, a food that might come to mind is calamari, the state appetizer that’s tossed with hot peppers.

Instead of capitalizing on that dish’s reputation, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation is using a food in its recent campaign that is uniquely Rhode Island.

The “stuffie.”

In an attempt to draw in visitors to Rhode Island, the agency responsible for statewide economic development created a campaign starring a whopping 200-pound version of the stuffed quahog. It’s made of styrofoam, and it sits on a large plate next to an 8-foot-tall bottle of hot sauce. The agency had two of them made by local company Lance Industries.

The stuffie, which is making its way around parts of the country that offer flights to and from Providence, has been subject to some online criticism by the agency’s strongest detractors — Rhode Islanders themselves.

“We have a great culinary scene and having a giant baby pooh on a clam is not going to bring in more tourists,” one commenter said below a Boston Globe article. 

When it comes to looks alone, these oven-baked clams aren’t the most attractive plate of food, though Stephen Bucolo, president of Anthony’s Seafood in Middletown, thinks they make up for it in taste.

His business, which includes a restaurant, a seafood market, and wholesale, sells plenty of stuffies (though they sell a lot more of their calamari appetizer). Often they’re asked to explain what a stuffie is.

“Outside of Rhode Island, very few people know what they are,” he said. “When they ask, we say stuffed quahog, and then they ask what a quahog is.”

Anika Kimble-Huntley, the chief marketing officer of the Rhode Island Commerce, said that’s part of the point of the campaign. They want people in their target markets — Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, and Baltimore — to ask about the stuffie. And they are, she added.

“I think it’s great that people are talking about it,” Kimble-Huntley said. “We want people to talk about it. That’s really what the goal is, to create buzz and to raise awareness of the unique cuisine in Rhode Island.”

Kimble-Huntley said they have ambassadors on site to explain the beloved stuffie to passersby and to pump them up about a potential Rhode Island trip. There’s also a video screen next to the stuffie that shows people how they’re made, from clamming to cooking.

So, what is a stuffie?

Outside of the boundaries of the country’s smallest state, stuffed quahogs really aren’t a widely-known (or eaten) food. They show up on some menus in southeastern Massachusetts, mostly near waters where quahogs are found (like Buzzards Bay), which is the clam used when making a “stuffie.”

But quahogs are found in abundance in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Shellfish culture is important in Rhode Island, its industry worth hundreds of millions, and recreationally people enjoy clamming.

They also, obviously, really enjoy eating the catches.

Bucolo sells nearly 600 stuffies a week during peak summer season, he said. It helps that his stuffies were advertised on “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives;” it also doesn’t hurt that not many people serve them.

But when they are on the menu, they’re usually always a different take on the stuffie.

“The reason it’s so beloved here is that every family makes it their own way,” Kimble-Huntley said.

Aside from the quahogs, the recipes usually call for peppers, onions, the Portuguese sausage chourico, a breading, and reserved clam juice. You can opt for a different kind of sausage — or not use one at all, and people use various breadings to put in their stuffie dish, like sourdough, Portuguese sweet bread, bread crumbs, or croutons.

Bucolo, who uses his grandmother’s recipe, puts the latter in his stuffies.

After the clams are steamed, chopped, and mixed in with the other ingredients, you bake it all together. Many serve it with hot sauce drizzled on top, but you can also use melted butter in the same way.

Bucolo said the dish is really popular during the summer months, an appetizer of choice for a football game watch party, and it pairs well with an ice-cold beer.

Now back to this giant stuffie. There is actually a chance for some Bay Staters to view the stuffie (or, as one Reddit user called it, a “creature from Star Trek”) in person at this year’s Big E in West Springfield.

Kimble-Huntley said the stuffie will be stationed in front of the Rhode Island Building.

The second stuffie is currently being driven around Michigan and Ohio, attempting to entice residents there to visit Rhode Island via Detroit’s airport.

The stuffie will eventually journey to Los Angeles, where it will join another Rhode Island-specific installation of a Newport mansion, as well as Atlanta and Baltimore.