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Over-Fishing Leads to Near Extinction of Native Oysters

Rhode Island’s oyster industry grew exponentially, and so did its problems. The Pond quickly filled with oyster fishermen from outlying towns, as far north as Providence. Fishing limits on oysters were ignored. Point Judith Pond was divided as oyster leases were established and purchased, in an attempt to limit the amount of oysters being taken. Overseeing these leases were difficult, if not impossible. Many fishermen fished wherever they liked, and disregarded fishing laws and limits on oysters altogether. In the years leading up to 1910, some catboats could be seen carrying over 100 bushels of oysters from a single day’s catch.

Dredging for oysters was not practical for the sailing catboats on the Pond, whose maneuverability was limited by the wind. At this time, however, large ships from Warwick and Providence came into the Pond, equipped with 3-cylinder diesel engines, known as “one lungers,” that possessed 30 horsepower of pulling strength. These motor-driven boats dragged the Pond’s bottom with wide steel claws that gathered oysters and fed them into a large trailing net. One of these boats, the David R. Dodge out of Warwick, would load its oysters onto a large sloop, the Nina Rowland, which carried close to 30 crewmembers. The Nina Rowland held oyster cargos of 2000 bushels. In three weeks time, these diesel-powered draggers removed an estimated 5000 bushels of oysters from Point Judith Pond. These same motorized draggers returned to the Pond three years in a row and decimated the local oyster population.
The History of Rhode Island Oysters
From a century ago when our salt ponds teemed with native oysters, to today's local oyster farms.
A Bounty of King-Sized Oysters

Until the late 1800’s, Native Americans that lived in the area enjoyed the large numbers of oysters that Point Judith Pond provided. Some of the tribes only fished out oysters in the warmer months, before traveling to a different area to spend the winter season. Other tribes that lived near the Pond year-round were known to have “transplanted” oysters within the Pond, moving them from deeper waters to shallow areas where they could still be accessed in winter, by cutting a hole through the ice. Native Americans discarded their empty oyster shells back into Point Judith Pond. These shell deposits, known as “middens,” are scattered across the bottom of the Pond. Turner Cove, home to Camp Fuller, is also home to some of these middens. Young swimmers and boaters at the camp will sometimes find one of the large oyster shells that were left behind by Native Americans. A century ago, many oysters experienced more growing seasons before being plucked from the Pond, evidenced by the discovery of these larger shells, which can measure up to 7 to 8 inches in length.

A postcard showing Dykstra's Oyster House (today's location of Stone Cove Marina) with its boat Nettie tied up at the dock. South County Hospital would  be built years later in the field to the left. Courtesy of Dr. Richard T. Zuerner.
Hand-drawn map of upper portion of Point Judith Pond by James E. Perry, circa 1907. Dykstra's Oyster House can be seen in lower right corner.
The Growth of an Industry

At the end of the nineteenth century and into the early 1900s, Rhode Island’s oyster industry thrived. Native oysters populated Point Judith Pond in large numbers. The same was true for many of the surrounding brackish ponds along the coastline. The abundance of native oysters could sustain the oyster population, as well as the livelihoods of the local fishermen, given the limited number of fishermen in the ponds at this time, in conjunction with the inefficient methods used for oyster fishing. Local oyster fishermen collected oysters by hand, usually by using metal tongs or rakes. 

Most of these oysters were brought to the Dykstra Oyster House at the north end of Point Judith Pond (the present day location of Stone Cove Marina). Here, the oysters were packed into hogsheads (wooden casks), then transported out of the Pond. The oyster house’s own sailing vessel, the Nettie, transported packed oysters out to larger ships waiting in the deeper waters of the bay, en route to New York City where the oysters would be sold at the Fulton Fish Market. At that time, a shallow sandbar resided at the mouth of Point Judith Pond where it meets the bay. Small catboats, carrying only a few of oyster barrels, could pass through this area anytime, but larger boats could only cross the sandbar during a high tide. Another option for large boats picking up oysters was available at Narragansett Beach. A very long pier extended far out into deep water, allowing large boats a place to tie up and load the hogsheads. The 1938 Hurricane later destroyed this pier, but some of its wooden pilings can still be seen on the beach today.

Today’s Oyster Farms: Spawning an Oyster Comeback

Rhode Island’s sustainable aquaculture movement began about 
twenty years ago with the birth of today’s modern oyster farms. Oysters grow quickly at farms located on the bay, and at farms located on coastal ponds, which now contain a higher salinity due to opened breachways. Oyster seed is purchased from hatcheries and then introduced in the farms’ nurseries. The oysters are typically grown on pond bottoms that could have been described as “lifeless,” composed predominantly of black muck. With the addition of a thriving oyster population, these “dead” areas have been rejuvenated into productive ecosystems where other fish and shellfish can once again thrive. Species like tautog, black sea bass, cunner and lobsters move back into these areas, creating a wealth of healthy biodiversity.

The Cooperative’s farms also participate in reef restoration projects, supported by USDA grants. Located in protected sanctuaries and managed by the Department of Environmental Management, these oyster reefs will grown and thrive on their own, and are the first steps to bringing back one of Rhode Island’s lost natural treasures. 

Information derived from an interview with Prentice Stout and from his book, "A Place of Quiet Waters, The History and Natural History of Rhode Island’s Point Judith Pond and the Harbor of Refuge."
Vintage map of Point Judith Pond displaying old names of islands and other points of interest in the Pond, circa 1947.
While these shells may look like the remains of a mammoth oyster that existed at a time when 20-foot tall reptiles tromped upon the earth, the oyster that inhabited this shell lived during a much more recent era. Measuring about 7-1/2 inches long, these shells were found in Point Judith Pond, where large native oysters thrived a little more than a century ago. For a better sense of their size, notice the quarter just to the right of the top shell. 
Opening Breachways: Creating Access Alters Oyster Habitat 

In 1910, another event took place that proved detrimental to the local oyster population, and ended any possibility for a resurgence of their numbers in the Pond. After much debate, the breachway was created at the mouth of Point Judith Pond where it meets the bay. The sandbar that existed there was dug out to provide larger boats access to the Pond. The channel was not only made deeper, but wider as well. The breachway runs between East Matunuck Beach and Salty Brine Beach, opening up the connection between Point Judith Pond and the Harbor of Refuge. The sandbar had acted as a natural valve, allowing only so much salt water to pass into the Pond, most of this occurring at high tides. Following its removal, a constant supply of ocean water was permitted to pass into the Pond, which forever changed the salinity of the water. 

Oysters grow fast in salty water, an attribute enjoyed by today’s oyster farmers. However, oysters have better success at spawning in brackish waters that possess a lower salinity, predominantly composed of fresh water. Following the devastating years of the draggers, the few remaining oysters in the Pond could not reproduce fast enough in the saltier water to sustain future oyster fishing, and were eventually wiped out.

Surrounding ponds met similar fates. Other breachways were created to allow year-round pond-to-ocean access, and to promote spawning among certain species of fish in the ponds. In 1911, one year after the completion of the breachway into Point Judith Pond, a channel was dug through a narrow strip of land that separated its waters and those of the adjacent, smaller Potter Pond. The water level of Potter Pond was three feet higher that the water in Point Judith Pond. When the last scoop of earth blocking the new channel was removed, the release of water coming from Potter Pond was go great, it swept the steam shovel and its operator off the crumbling bank and into the larger pond.