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PostPosted: Wed Jul 19, 2017 10:56 am    Post subject: Marine Soil Experiments Clam Growth 1890-1930 59-B Reply with quote

IMEP #59-B
Marine Soil Experiments Clam Growth and Setting Habitats – 1890-1930
The Use of Natural Quahog and Steamer Soft Shell Clam Seed
Areas for Aquaculture
Nantucket, Jamaica Bay and Quahog Seed Transplants of the Last Century
July 2016
Habitat Information for Fishers and Fishery Area Managers
“Understanding Science Through History”
(IMEP History Newsletters can be found indexed by date – Title on the BlueCrab.info™ website: Fishing, Eeling and Oystering thread) and on Connecticut Fish Talk™ (See Saltwater Reports thread)

This is a two part report – 59-A and 59-B. This part is 59-B

Readers should review IMEP #58 January 20, 2016 for a better understanding of this report. This paper includes an 1890 survey of Long Island Sound containing an early description of Sapropel bottoms. Climate factors do influence the capacity of marine soils to sustain shellfish sets in shallow waters.

The Cultivation of Marine Soils – Seed Clams

While visiting some used book stores last summer I saw a used copy of “Nantucket” – The Last 100 Years Every Day History From The Pages of “The Inquirer and Mirror” compiled and edited John Stanton (2001) - The Inquirer and Mirror™ and I picked it up. So many of my fisheries histories are built around newspaper articles and was hoping that by chance it might have an article about this once large Nantucket Quahog bed and it did!

The article answered many habitat questions. First of all, the time – the bed was discovered in the fall of 1913 although the article was dated June 6, 1914 and had a picture from the Nantucket Historical Association of clams being put in barrels – just as Mr. Hammond, Chatham Massachusetts had mentioned to me decades ago. The article titled “Heavy Quahog Shipments Have Sent Prices Down” answered some more – 50 cents a bushel was the going to the boat rate and orders were 2,000 bushels each week. Clams were being bedded on the south side of Long Island in a place called “Jamaica Bay.” Doubts were also expressed that clams sent to Jamaica Bay will not set from a “different bottom.” Catches were reported from 50 to 150 bushels per day per boat and that “the best dredging is said to be right over the ground which has been “worked” all winter.

The Nantucket Quahoggers were correct about the clams being planted in Jamaica Bay – the soil had changed and most likely became Sapropel, and sets most likely had ended long before the June 6, 1914 report. Jamaica Bay is a shallow lagoon with a barrier spit system – several marshes throughout and flushing rates vary from a few days to several days (see IMEP #5Cool. Many people are familiar with adjacent land areas. The barrier spit is called Rockaway Beach to the east and to the west Coney Island and north, Canarsie but inside dozens of marshy islands has been the subject of research of Dr. Kevin Olsen of Montclair University Jamaica Bay - New York’s Conflicted Backyard by Kevin Olsen, the Drew Symposium, October 2008 provides an excellent habitat/environmental history for the Bay. In fact it is part of a larger chemical history of urban waste, organic matter and grease into shallow water soils (sediments) conducted by Dr. Olsen contained in Jamaica Bay. The chemistry of marine soils is a quickly developing field with the prospects of interdisciplinary study of habitat succession. Here organics would be trapped (including human discharges) and in heat putrefy in low oxygen conditions. Sulfur reducing bacteria could produce acids that restrict clam setting – “a different bottom.”

In the historical records these bottom are frequently mentioned as “sour. Cultivating these soils can sustain Quahog growth but are very poor for catching a Quahog set. They are often “sticky” from wax esters the breakdown of leaf material (especially oak leaves) and that is why shellfish dealers turned to northern cooler waters for the popular Quahog. I wished I had more information about the term “different bottom” but I strongly suspect it was Sapropel. Clammers quickly realized the importance of marine soil types and the abundance (or lack there of) of quahogs. (The habitat history of the Jamaica Bay quahog seed transplants are most likely preserved under layers of Sapropel – a different bottom that exists today).

The sloop Nema Rowland mentioned in the article which was sailing from Nantucket last Sunday which what was believed to have been the largest shipment of quahaugs (later texts in the 1930s switched to “hogs” and either spelling continues to be used today (T. Visel) taken from Nantucket since “the bed” was discovered “outside Nantucket bar last fall.” Reports for several accounts mention a decline in the quahog (hard or round clams in CT) in the 1890s in southern New England. As waters warmed Quahog fisheries occurred to the north, oyster sets increased in the south, in Rhode Island and Connecticut.

The article gives a very thorough review but what caught my attention was the hundreds of bushels and a description of “barrels up in the bow.” This is what John Hammond also described that seed clams were often shipped in barrels as it was not able to take the waves – breakage and such thin shelled seed packed with eelgrass to act as a modern day “popcorn pack” to cushion the blows of sea transit. George McNeil also mentioned seed quahog clams being “put up in barrels.” Many times it was at times the metal spacing on dredges or rakes (designed to free shell harsh and small shells) allowed seed to slip through or be washed out coming up to the deck. Belding also mentions this problem in 1912 as well on page 77 of this report upon The Mollusk Fisheries of Massachusetts the only large sources of seed quahogs came from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard (at this time soft shell clams did well on the Cape but the southern market preferred quahogs clams especially for New York City markets) on page 76-77 is found this section.

“Small quahogs were obtained in 1905 and 1906 at Coatou Point – consisting of a narrow strip of sandy beach, he directly across the harbor from the village of Nantucket – on one side is a salt water pond, connected with the harbor by a stream through which the tide flows into the pond. The stream has a bed of coarse sand and is protected by a sand bar at its mouth. The sand in the lower part of the stream, which extends for about 50 yards in a crooked course is fine and clear white half way up there is a stretch of fine gravel and above this coarse sand. At the upper part of this stream, where it nears the ponds, the sides rise abruptly in banks lined with heavy thatch, and are heavily set with ribbed mussel while large bunches of the common mussel (blue mussel) lie in the bed of the stream. In this part of the creek the quahogs were abundant and could be exposed by raking the surface of the sand. Many of these small quahogs had a bit of green algae attached to the beak of the shell and were especially numerous in the clumps of mussels.

Quahogs could be obtained as large as 1 3/4 inches, but no larger, while the majority were small 6 to 8 millimeters). The locality is evidently one of the slow growth, judging from the appearance of the quahaugs and from the fact that no increase in growth between August and the following spring could be noticed. The method of gathering these small quahogs was by hand and by shifting the sand though fine mesh screens, a slow process, as only 200 could be gathered per hour by one person.” (The location of this creek perhaps exists in Nantucket Shellfish history records).

Belding then describes this early seed quahog planting as thousands of bushels of clam seeds now were sold in New England (pg 49, 1920) is found this section and a mention of Nantucket (1912 survey information) although by 1915 Nantucket would be New England’s largest producer of seed quahogs.

Belding comments,

“The demand for small seed has extended even to Massachusetts, and many thousands bushels have been shipped out of state for planting purposes. Nantucket, Chatham, and finally New Bedford have taken their turn in this traffic, according to the abundance of small quahaugs. In 1909 one New York planter is authentically reported to have purchased nearly 5,000 bushels of seed from Massachusetts, paying $3 per bushel. During 1909 the shipment of seed from New Bedford, and Fair Haven approximated 45,000 bushels. These small quahogs are replanted in Long Island waters, and in years time, according to the results of growth experiments, probably nettled the planter at least 4 bushels of marketable little necks for every bushel planted. Lately some of the Massachusetts oystermen have successfully raised quahogs on the oyster grants and are ready to engage in a more extensive way.”

(Nantucket would soon become the largest quahog seed producer in New England – in 1915 – 1916 producing between 50,000 and 60,000 bushels of seed but not recorded and the 1912 publication date is a bit misleading as its represents a 1912 publication date but is a 1909 study. The Great Nantucket Quahog Bed would be discovered in the fall of 1913 just a few months later this report was printed – T. Visel).

Nantucket was already making its soon to be dominance apparent to Dr. Belding and on page 60 is found this section.

“The Islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard – This section comprises valuable territory, especially in the production of “little necks.” The grounds, approximating 7,000 acres, are found principally in Katama Bay, Edgartown, Nantucket harbor and near the island of Tuckernuck. Conditions here resemble closely the south side of Cape Cod, as regards exposure, rise and fall of the tide, and depth of water.

a) Nantucket – Nantucket is especially adapted for quahaugs, as Nantucket harbor, Maddequet harbor and the Island of Tuckernuck possess extensive territory. The quahauging territory of Nantucket is divided into three sections: 1) Nantucket harbor; 2) Maddequet harbor; and 3) Tuckernuck. In Nantucket harbor quahaugs are found over an area of 2,290, both scattering and in thick patches. Maddequet harbor, on the western end of the island, has approximately 300 acres suitable for quahaugs, running from Broad Creek of Eel Point. On the eastern end of Tuckernuck Island is a bed of quahaughs covering about 200 acres; while on the west side, between Muskeget and Tuckernuck, is a large are of 2,500 acres which is more or less productive. The Tuckermuck fishery is largely “little necks,” and it is from here that the shipment of small seed quahaugs has been made.”

It is the description of quahog soil and his emphasis upon soil conditions which provides important clues to the rise and fall of quahog fisheries. Dr. Belding wrote during those great heat or “hot term” – warmer then “hot” temperatures would collapse the southern quahog fisheries, a lack of proper soil conditions would lead to set failures and New York market demand lead to depleting any remaining adult populations. A rare but valuable account from Connecticut appeared in a 1891 New York Times article describes the decline of quahogs but in the same article mentions good supplies of soft shells. It was during this time that Connecticut quahog production would fail, while soft shell clams surged to record harvests. Quahogs who prefer cooler waters “reversed’ with soft shells who like the warmth, they tend to do better in cold to warm periods. The heat would continue into the 1890s, and soon only the Northern range of the quahog held commercial quantities. (It is also significant that quahog populations not seen in centuries also reestablished themselves in southern Maine). Some remnant populations of quahogs still exist in southern Maine southern rivers. During the 1880-1920 period quahogs did move into the northern Maritimes as well starting a fishery in Prince Edward Island around 1912 (MacKenzie 2002 Part II).

It is though that thousands of acres of subtidal soils become warm and subject to sulfate organic reduction generating organic acids that prevented good quahogs sets (Sapropel). Belding 1912 lists soil conditions (productive capacity) as the most important factor,

“Soil – nature of the soil affects the quahaug in two ways: 1) if too shifting it buries the quahaug or washes it beyond the border of the grant; 2) soils in which organic acids, caused by the decay of plant life, are present, prove unsatisfactory for any catching of seed, interfered to a slight extent with the growth by destroying the shell, and worst of all, give the quahaug a poor, black appearance, unfavorable for immediate marketing. While the effect of soils on shell formation has never been worked out, and although the quahaug derives its material for its shell from the water, nevertheless, the nature of the soil in some indirect way determines the appearance, the composition and the weight of the shell, as observations on quahaugs from various soils in near by localities indicate.”

The consideration of the soil would be noticed by shellfishers for centuries, those bottoms that smelled of sulfide were regarded as poor and those sandy loose and often with a shell cover, shell bits or shell hash as good. Both a cultivation aspect of large grain size soil and pH impact. It is Belding that frequently mentions organic acids and decaying plant material two key indicators of habitat succession. In times estuarine soils declined in setting capacity, they became hard and soil water pore exchange filled with plant matter. Some of the best quahog sets have been associated with storms – recultivating soils freeing them of the by products of sulfate reduction – a shell cover also improving pH – much as agricultural lime terrestrial soil cultivation practices.

A half century later, the impacts of pH soil cultivation and the location of natural seed quahog beds was mentioned several times by Mr. Frank Dolan of Guilford, CT – whom would take me hydraulic dredge clamming many times. Mentioning the “Griffin bed” deed near West Wharf Madison that contained a patch of bottom swept by currents from two nearby reefs. This patch of bottom consisting of about an acre in size consistently caught a dense quahog set and produced hundreds of thousands of seed clams but Mr. Dolan was reluctant to plant them in deep water (he had tried but according to Mr. Dolan “they moved” and made recovery uncertain). Mr. Dolan felt that shallow creeks and shoal areas if cleaned of leaves and sufficient shell cover planted could raise seed quahogs obtained by fishers from seed beds (or today clam hatcheries). In this way they could be more closely monitored and protected from serious conch predators by lower salinity. That would take specialized dredge equipment designed to retain these seed clams – the installation of metal cloth he suggested (A 1985 experiment off a Charles Island Quahog Bed with metal hardware cloth would yield dredges full of nickel size seed quahogs) inside the dredge frame. The area that Mr. Dolan mentioned he felt was kept cultivated by natural currents as per an island or reef effect. He had noticed that areas in front of an island was too active – too much energy or waves, in back of the island was frequently mucky, sticking or muck filled sour bottoms – not enough energy and the bottoms “soured.” The edges of the island or reef that was were the beds were, some currents kept the soil “clean” and therefore had much higher clam populations. Of all the things Mr. Dolan felt that local shellfish commissions could do to improve clamming was to equip a seed dredge for transplanting small quahogs into areas near shore for hand rakers. Otherwise these natural seed beds often went “to waste” as they starved each other out and attracted predators – he once gave a story of a nickel thrown on a school yard – a single nickel no one would notice, but dump a dump truck full of nickels on a school yard would most certainly attract attention. He felt the something happened in the natural environment – like seed oyster habitats some were great at catching a set but lacked the room to grow or if they did that to grow soon attracted huge numbers of predators they in time left unchecked would overtime devourer them. Cultivating soils, thinning out seed and transplanting seed could greatly improve quahog densities according to Mr. Dolan (see appendix)..

Belding (1912) also mentions the subterranean attack of “horse winkle” now referred to as the knobbled whelk (conch) Busycon that would plague shellfish farmers a half century later and quotes research conducted by H. S. Cotton from 1908 (Fulgar carica and Sycotypes canaliculars) today Fulgar carica is Busycon carica knobbed and Sycotypus coaliculors is today Busycotypus canaliculatus known as the channel whelk. The reason or practice as to why Dr. Belding called them horse winkles is now obscured by time. The knobbed whelk (Busycon carica) is what is termed the horse winkle pg 40 Belding (1912). Often in older texts the scientific names of clams were changed – in Dr. Belding’s time the quahog was known as Venus mercenaria and today Mercenaria – the 1912 report most likely the largest scientific contribution to Quahog life history to date was submitted to Dr. George W. Field Chairman of the Massachusetts Dept of Fisheries and Game, State House Boston, MA. (A description of Dr. Fields Marine laboratory work 1896 to 1900 in Rhode Island can be found in the Search for Megalops Blue Crab Report series found on the Blue Crab Forum™ Northeast crabbing resources – Rhode Island Blue Crab Capital Nov 2nd 2015).

What Dr. Belding described in his notes from Nantucket was the type of soil Quahog could set well but not grow as “coarse and clean.” This type of heavy sets and “stunting” even pushing each other out of the soil occurs many times in the historical literature. It would be natural for fishers to notice this seed excess – as it would also be repeated by fisher efforts to save bay scallop seed cast upon beaches after a storm or quick freeze. Soft shell sets in Rhode Island during this “hot term” in 1904 to 1908 could reach over a hundred clams in a foot, much too many to support normal growth – the same could be said about the oyster industry as well. Cultivating and thinning seed oysters for “proper growth” much the same as thinning a row of carrots from any garden. Some areas are natural soils for large sets but such excess what is termed the natural carrying capacity. Regulated size limits in the 1920s and 1930s aimed at maximized harvests and in many areas made movements of seed stock illegal and diminished harvest potential. The seed densities mentioned by Belding and others were wasted from the fishery and often found in historical records and mentioned in one CT Bay Scallop example (See IMEP #7 Niantic Bay Scallops Seed Transplanting 1916 to 1935 Blue Crab Forum™ Feb 2014). Other seed areas both soft shell and quahog would grow for a while – experience huge natural mortalities, poor growth stunted clams and most likely starved and perished. The oyster industry did not have the same size laws and were able to cultivate seed oysters while the other clam fisheries forced to accept natural predation and mortalities all declined. Shellfish aquaculture would later develop in these same areas all based upon the assurance of continuous supplies of seed from hatcheries.

It should be noted that from time to time shellfish harvest rules are suspended for bay scallops and many towns allow fishers to move seed scallops to deeper water or plant salt ponds with stranded seed – this no doubt has helped future harvests although movement of soft shell clam seed in Martha’s Vineyard by low pressure hydraulics was successful in the 1970s this program to my knowledge was stopped for the clam fisheries. Soft shell seed clams are largely wasted from the inshore fisheries here (although soft shell clam depuration has occurred in Mass since 1928 – CT still has no soft shell clam facility) the loss of market value in CT from historical harvest data in closed shellfish areas is now in the millions. Soft shells today bring a high price (over $100/bushsel) but was once shunned and utilized as bait or a feed for pigs. (See IMEP #2 Soft Shell in Connecticut, The Blue Crab Forum™ Fishing, Eeling Oystering Thread posted Feb 7, 2014.

The presence of clam quahog sets on natural seed beds remains largely unreported and such natural “seed events” most likely consumed by predators. This is a problem with modern clam sanctuaries for spawning purposes but then allows natural sets to remain unmapped or prevent seed harvests from natural high density set areas. This may allow a great set (depending upon soil characteristics) but establishes a predator/prey low carrying capacity. We may find that such clam sanctuaries may support new populations of clam predators that Mr. Hammond mentioned forty years ago. Such natural seed (areas) beds are not prepared for soil characteristics as in the oyster industry. To maximize seed quahog production would be identification of important seed quahog soils – often observed in the quahog fisheries by comments but not mapped or reported. Once mapped these soils can be identified and cultivated to obtain seed much as the oyster sets on placed shell cultch in areas of known high oyster spatfalls.

The Clam Grounds of Nantucket

The Nantucket Clam Bed was a combination of both, an area that held adult clams but now sustained immense sets, and the dredging likely loosened surface soils, and scattered dead shells on the surface. This action most likely improved additional sets perhaps resembling the natural storm event that proceeded. The shells both provide a relief for veligers and a pH buffer – the pH aspects are now just beginning to be recognized. Continuous cultivation most likely extended habitat conditions (similar to Agriculture) and related to habitat succession. The same could be said for lawn care and mowing was stopped (energy input) the “lawn” would succeed into a different habitat type.

The largest natural quahog seed bed was thought to be the Nantucket “Great Bed.” That is where I first heard the account. Researchers most likely given enough time could put together a good habitat history for this quahog bed – this is just an attempt to start one. (Local records could be a key research help, newspapers over time are frequently a good reference base perhaps for some local high school history projects?).

The initial set often follows a storm – that is what Cape Cod shellfishers felt in the early 1980s.

In the fishery history literature sudden increases in quahog habitat quality follows a sharp reversal to greater energy and a cold spell. Once the clams have set they grow (much according to soil type) and the big sets follow hurricanes (IMEP #50, post February 25th 2016 Storms, Barrier Cuts and Shore Fisheries) are often a decade or more later.

The Portgale Gale – a rare November Hurricane (The Great Heat occurred here 1880-1920) on November 26th, 27th 1898 is now linked to this bottom cultivation event. It would take two to three years for soils to stabilize allowing quahog veligers to now set. Cooler waters would slow growth so about a decade would pass before the clams were found on Nantucket Bar in the fall of 1913 about a decade after the 1898 storm. The storm most likely cultivated the bars with storm waves and a 1970s chart of the area still carries the term “Quahog Grounds”. In small bays and coves shellfishers themselves often report the benefits of soil cultivation and pH (shell hash) and pH buffering impacts (long accepted by agriculture). The failure of mapping habitat soil characteristics of natural seed areas has prevented fisheries expansion and the greatest loss of economic potential from the faster growing soft shell clam. At times the soft shell clam set can be in the hundreds per square foot – far too many for survival. The same is true for the hard shell clam quahog in bays and coves*. The soils now succeeded to Sapropel ending the sets – such as in Jamaica Bay, New York and along Connecticut’s shore in the 1890s.

When that occurred the waters sustained larger number of sulfate reducing bacteria – Sapropel formed on the bottom and purged sulfides. One of the symptoms of sulfate reducing bacteria is the phenomenum of “purple waters” as some species of sulfate sulfur bacteria) are purple. Once that happens sulfide levels soar and creates the sulfide deadlines precursor to the “black water deaths” attributed to wood chip and sawdust sulfate reduction but can happen in any sluggish/poorly flushed area. In this case leaf fall was mostly likely the organic culture medium (food) to support the sulfur reducing bacteria that started the die off in high heat and Sapropel begins to build it also rebuilds the sulfur cycle deadly to most oxygen requiring life forms. (A few species of the flatworms can exist in high sulfur – sulfide waters). It as a function of the biological and chemical processes, now emits high ammonia levels, purges sulfide and naturally complexes heavy metals especially aluminum which is acutely toxic to marine life. (Fishers wanting a broader explanation of the killing power of sulfate reduction (sulfur reducing bacteria) should review Environment and Conservation post #7 titled Salt Marshes – A Climate Change Bacterial Battlefield”). Secondary toxic impacts include pH flucuations and Sapropel is reexposed to oxygen a sulfuric acid wash develops while ammonia drives the basic pH lethal limits. In times aluminum can now be released, and ammonia may fuel secondary toxic blooms of algal species – termed harmful algal blooms or HABS. Only energy and cooler temperature can break this sulfur cycle – allowing the “good” oxygen requiring bacteria to out complete the SRB strains. This seems to be the case in the Narrow River, Rhode Island from available printed observations. {Anoxic water in the Pettasquamscutt River – Authur Gaines Jr. and Michael E Q Dilson graduate School of Oceanography URI Kinston 02881 Linology and Oceanography, Jan 1972 V17C) pg 42 to 49).

The Nantucket Quahog Bed – (1914 to 1928) could have been the largest seed clam (quahog) producer of New England fisheries history estimated to have produced a half million bushels of seed, regulations (1929) placed for not moving seed – exposed many for predators (tautog probably were attracted to this bed in larger and larger numbers) and then lost to the fishery. It would be interesting to find some vessel trip reports that mentioned Tautog being caught in the clam dredges. (In warm periods Black Sea Bass are mentioned). In this case regulations pushed the habitat capacity back to natural conditions and when the economic return value of work declined it just didn’t pay to work them. These beds were not cultivated and sets declined, the bed “gave out,” fishers were blamed for overfishing but I contend this is not always the case. The Pleasant Bay report contains an economic aspect I feel is the key to the decline.

“Fishermen generally avoid this bed of quahogs because the number of legal sized quahogs are relatively few in comparison of the great numbers of seed quahog present.”

When the seed quahog fishing was ended it just didn’t pay to work these areas for the remaining few adults – we can see this loss in shellfish sets in other areas as well. Once that occurred (energy stopped) soils succeed again, soil pores filled in with fines, deep water soils became firm and hard packed. It is in the closed pore soils that quahogs lives at the surface – easy prey for numerous species*. When regulations for size were enacted they frequently included minimum spacing for hand hauled rakes or power dredges. This allowed seed clams to pass through the spaces and not be retained. This allowed claming to occur on areas of mostly seed unnoticed. In one Milford, CT experiment hydraulic dredging attracted large numbers of tautog – just the pump engine vibrations alone attracted large tautog before the dredging even commenced. Installation of hardware cloth – metal weave screen showed the bed consisted of over 90% seed. The dredging no doubt had a chumming effect for the local fish.

Soils Can Change Shellfish Seed Capacity

One of the areas that I observed that obtained immense sets of oysters that could have produced millions of set on shell bags was the upper Pettasquamsett Lake – the upper reaches of the Narrow River in Rhode Island. It was on my commute from URI fisheries school to the main campus. In 1978-1981 I would be called several times to look at this area and the oyster sets an exposed rock was immense. Small stunted (but often dead) oyster ringed the shoreline, it was hot and in late August the smell of sulfur was hard to ignore (my car then did not have air conditioning). One meeting with a neighbor who showed his house had blackened on the side facing the salt ponds. The oyster die off was immense, followed by another one that following summer. A short habitat history detailed that these events occurred often – an immense oyster set – (dead Blue Crabs were also observed) followed in August by smells of sulfur and dead or decayed oysters. This neighbor had called the URI Wickford Fisheries school for some “oyster questions” and I was given the message – can you come back?

On my return visit, the bottom oyster set was large as what I could observe from the previous fall and no doubt contributed to this sulfide die off. I tried to explain that removing these small oysters would reduce the severity of the event but could not stop it. Once these small oysters died their meats putrified and removed any remaining oxygen which then started a larger fish/crab kill. According to this report the smells at times during August were so strong they had to close windows. Within a few years on the Cape I would meet Dr. Arthur Gaines and discuss this seed oyster die off - as a natural hot weather event (much like the blue crab Jubilees downs south) and that the oyster sets were immense (and now likely the source of the historical natural oyster seed oysters for Point Judith Pond). The bottom in spots covered in Sapropel (Black Mayonnaise) I recall giving a talk in the early 1980s for the Rhode Island Aquaculture Association and saying that the seed oyster potential from these ponds could rival any other from natural sets. (Note Dr. Gaines would pursue studies of these salt ponds and found sulfide levels so high as to be equal if not higher than the Black Sea).

These coastal salt ponds would stratify - and in the fall surface waters cooled sunk and in the process push sulfide rich waters to the surface. This is commonly described as “fall over turn” a term that signaled the ice industry a century to ready ice cutters – as the pond and lake were cooling and ice would soon appear dead fish (from sulfides below) on the surface often signaled the overturn. In the cold and stormy 1960s sometimes over turn was not pronounced and even did not occur in the higher energy lower temperature 1950s and 1960s when the warmer 1980s came and storm energy declined it is thought that the bottom waters became poorly ventilated, thermo clines redeveloped and oxygen reduced in the bottom waters as sulfides increases – the start of the deadly sulfur cycle and the black water deaths of the past century. In extreme heat in small bays and coves this condition was to prevent any recruitment and as the warming started southern clam producing areas “failed first.”

Seed clams went to Jamaica Bay – followed by Sapropel and Bacteria Concerns

As the “heat” continued in the 1890s bottoms changed and smells “rotten eggs” a huge problem to farmers then occurred along many shores. This is the sulfate/reduction, sulfide production aspect of the sulfur cycle. There is some evidence that this change is bottom habitats altered fish themselves. Just prior to the 1898 upper Narragansett Bay lobster die off and harmful algal blooms fishers noticed that the white underneath bottoms of flounder had, in fact, turned black. Jordan and Everman 1896-1900

Some of the first negative impacts of Sapropel would be seen in the coves and bays subject to organic matter from land and human/animal waste. Storms and colder temperatures would keep Sapropel formation in check, minimizing sulfur reduction as storms tended to move Sapropel and organic ooze to those areas of higher oxygen and oxygen bacterial reduction. A U.S. Fish Commission survey in Long Island Sound in 1890 had already found Sapropel layers describing it exactly as a “bottom of putrid things” – this no doubt had immediate habitat impacts to shellfish.

The 1880s were a New England seafood transition – storms subsided and temperatures warmed. The warmer more stable bottoms were at first good for clam and oyster culture. But in time the heat gave way to sulfate reduction and the growth of Sapropel. This was likely the condition of Jamaica Bay in the 1880s which by several printed accounts now obtained enormous quantities of organic matter, refuse and garbage and a growing accumulation of grease. It is the grease that is so damaging to shellfish culture, it forms a greasy deposit – that seals oxygen from entering marine soils, if long enough suffocates shellfish and contributes to Sapropel deposits and then sulfide waters – toxic to fish as well. It is the rise and fall of Sapropel that governs shellfisheries (The Rise of Sapropel the Fall of Bay Scallops IMEP #14, March 24, 2014) and signifies massive habitat reversals. Fishers and shore residents get an early warning alarm as small bays and coves they often reverse first. They are smaller and can over time obtain less energy and warm quicker. They are subject to organic matter inputs that feed the sulfate reducing bacteria. It is the blue crab jubilees that occurred in summer and the sulfide winter kills as cold water allows sulfides to rise – they can smell it. Almost these events are described by the smell of match sticks (sulfur) or that of rotten eggs – hydrogen sulfide gas releases.

A window into the killing sulfur cycle is the near shore habitats which in long quiet hot spells (1880-1920) can spread out to deeper and deeper waters to reach entire bays and sounds. Jamaica Bay is a good ocean study site near populated areas while a control site with limited human impacts I feel exist in Rhode Island. One of the most significant study areas for the cycle of Sapropel and Sulfide waters could be the Narrow River in Southern Rhode Island. The geography of these salt ponds have a long connection to the sea with sills very similar to the 1930s studies of sulfide waters in Norwegian fords by (Strom 1938) published as Recent Marine Sediments in 1965 by the National Academy of Science. The Narrow River – Pettaquamscutt Lake shores area is very close to the University of Rhode Island and has an extensive habitat history in the scientific literature. Although these areas share certain Sapropel/sulfide characteristics it gives a good opportunity to look at climate and energy impacts to smaller water bodies and the formation of Sapropel.

The Narrow River Pettaquamscutt Lakes and shore region could be one of the best study sites for the influence of climate and species assemblages on the east coast. Donald B. Harton in 1958, for example did his master thesis at the University of Rhode Island on the occurrence and distribution fish in upper Pettaquamscutt River. It would be interesting to compare that report to ones conducted in 1958 to the 1992-2012 period – a period of extreme heat and dominance of sulfate reducing bacteria. I have no doubt that what I witnessed in 1975–81 there was the beginning of a Sapropel/SRB period. The 1950s are now associated with largely a negative NAO period – colder and frequent storms – wind sheers that would have tended to mix the lakes and prevent the growth of sulfide waters associated with the build up of Sapropel. It is these dark and sometimes black water that held iron based sulfides – sulfide levels that caused “black water deaths” of the last century.

In some cold years, the waters would not stratify (separate) locking this black water rich in sulfide below warmer surface waters. For black water to form a “thermocline” needs to form and colder dense water is allowed to “stagnate” over organic bottoms which purge sulfide and particulate organic matter – this water can become rich in sulfide and toxic to blue crabs, oysters and most sea life. It is the periodic climate induced black waters which carry so much hydrogen sulfide and often lead to fish kills. When the warm water of summer cools – (this is why on deep lakes the surface waters is “nice” to swim in!) the thermocline collapses, surface waters sink bringing the black water up to the surface resulting in quick almost instant sulfide fish kills in an “overturn.”

Observations on the stability of stratification in Pettaquamscutt Lake leaflet number 27 fall 1968 by Richard R. Sisson Marine Biologist – Marine Fisheries RI Division of Conservation – Wickford RI, April 1969.

“The segment of the Pettaguamscutt River known as Pettaquamscutt Lake consists of two deep basins which exhibit a yearly period of stable summer stratification, and an occasional period of turnover during fall circulation.

In an effort to explain why turnover is intermittent, the conditions of temperature and salinity were monitored in the southern most basin referred to by Horton (1958), and also in a more shallow area south of this basin (Figure 1). Fall circulation results from a density imbalance caused by lowered temperatures and mixing of the water by wind.

From these calculations, the location of the thermocline was determined. Figures 2-8 show the movement of the thermocline, and indicate the probability of an overturn. As the season progressed, the thermocline began to sink from 7.5 meters to 10.5 meters, and thereafter disappeared altogether. Several periods of high winds of up to 85 mph is however may have been the cause of this sinking.

No overturn of any magnitude occurred in the fall of 1968 in this basin. The data in this study indicate that by December, a great exchange had occurred in the epilimnion as a result of mixing and diffusion. It is suggested that the heavy winds of mid-November led to the insignificant temperature differences observed below three meters on December 3, 1968. Heavy rain during the same period created a fresh water lens on the surface. Overturn does not occur every year because high salinity causes stability, even through temperature conditions favor overturn. Throughout the period of observations, the bottom temperatures did not vary greatly, nor did the density. This indicates a stable system in the basin in the fall of 1968.”

Bottom cores in the lakes could tell of previous habitat reversals and impact the assemblages of fish and shellfish. Oysters/blue crabs do share a habitat/population association in historical fish records – in times of oyster habitat expansion is also accompanied by an increase of blue crabs – in semi closed bodies of water will end (in heat) this assemblage as habitats “fail” and overturn cause sulfide rich waters to the surface killing oxygen requiring life forms. When this occurs the bottom marine soils have turned into sulfur killing bottoms toxic to any clam and oyster sets.

A very hot summer followed by severe cold can cause a rapid or almost instantaneous overturn killing fish with sulfide. Waters brought quickly up to the surface. The Black Hall River in Old Lyme, CT is a similar sulfide kill after a sudden cold snap thus killed hundreds of small Striped Bass in 2014. These in the historical records are termed winter kill in salt ponds that contain Sapropel deposits (locally called black mayonnaise on Cape Cod). The Black Hall River had two smaller sulfide kills and was recently dredged to remove organic matter that likely contained Sapropel.

The high sulfide water contents described by Dr. Arthur Gaines of the upper Narrow River leads to the source of such tremendous sulfides – Sapropel on the bottom. I suspect the Sapropels in some areas are quite deep and as in other coves and bays in cold active energy periods less thick and in warm to hot storm free periods it can build up and be the source of purple or chocolate waters commonly associated with sulfur reducing bacteria – who as a group feast on dead leaves and organic matter, live in oxygen depleted but sulfide rich waters (in the presence of sulfate) SRB also naturally complex heavy metals and emit ammonia. Sulfur reducing bacteria are the largest habitat modifying impact upon shallow bays and coves especially in times of heat or positive NAO cycles. The NAO cycle of heat/little storm acting or cold intense low pressure systems Northeastern is thought to be the basis of seafood cycles such as southern New England’s recent Blue Crab explosion which started in 1998 as the positive NAO climate pattern intensified. The Narrow River because of its fishery history is a key study site for the rise and fall of Sapropel and the habitats associated with other species (my view). The impact of sapropel upon clam culture and clam fisheries should not be over looked – until now very little has been written about this aspect of marine soils.

Storms and temperature changes can break the Sulfur Cycle –

The rise and fall of the sulfur cycle can be traced to its habitat indicator, the accumulation of “food” for sulfur reducing bacteria – Sapropel. By the 1880s the 1870s and the brutal cold and destructive storms were unpleasant memories – in Connecticut instead a gradual warning had occurred and the 1880-1920 period was remarkable for a lower frequency of intense storms – the shores after the destructive 1870s Long Island Sound now became “quiet.” As the heat continued into the late 1880s oyster sets improved but some oysters stopped growing and many died. The ooze which suffocated oysters smelled of sulfur and at this time the early 1890s come the first reports of Sapropel forming on the bottom came from the oyster industry. In 1890 they asked the US Navy for help in investigating the rise of “putrid bottoms.” These putrid bottoms also killed clams and made clam sets impossible. Concern by the Connecticut Oyster industry increased as “mud” now killed entire oyster beds.

This excerpt is from the New London Day, New London, CT – Friday, March 21, 1890

Note – 1890 was a decade into the “Great Heat” a four decade period for New England 1880-1920 that had a series of mild winters (An ice famine occurred in 1899 as lakes and ponds did not freeze) and extreme heat “hot terms” in summers. It is in this period that heat waves and agriculture habitat failures is what created the Weather Bureau in 1891 (although farmers had tracked weather patterns a century before). The rise of Sapropel, a strong smelling putfried organic paste had already alarmed oyster growers in Connecticut who asked the US Fish Commission with help from the US Navy to conduct dredge surveys of Long Island Sound and symptoms of oyster sulfide poisoning were reported by Captain Platt on March 21, 1890. (The worst heat waves were yet to come 1896-1905).

“Long Island Sound – Remarkable Revelations –
A Bottom of Putrefied Things” – (New London Day, March 21, 1890)

“In the first place he (Captain Platt) found that the oysters were dissolved, tasteless and evidently unhealthy indicating that they being exposed to some very unfavorable conditions (the same attributes were found in the York River Oyster study conducted by Paul Galtsoff in 1937-38 oysters exposed to sulfide purging will not feed and slowly starve. Waterly dissolved meats often the result. When exposed to sulfide they just won’t open to feed and they just starve especially in hot weather, see IMEP #51, July 15, 2015 The Cycle of Eelgrass and Fish Habitats 1890-1990 T. Visel).

“Then his dredgings seemed to disclose the cause. In the vicinity of the beds (oysters) his dredge brought up from the bottom a foul deposit (suspected to be Sapropel T. Visel) which gave forth such a stench that it was almost impossible to examine it (Hydrogen Sulfide gas T. Visel). In 90 feet of water in the middle of the Sound he brought up old boots and a great variety of decayed refuse matter which had evidently been on the bottom without moving much with the tide, for a very long time. Among other things his dredge brought up an old mattress which fell to pieces when brought to the surface and gave out such a foul smell that it was impossible to remain in its vicinity, and it had to be at once dropped back into the water or no one could have remained on deck. All the matter brought up had this same foul smell (suspected of strong hydrogen sulfide T. Visel) and showed the evidence of city refuse. The water splattered from the dredge coming of this foul matter discolored paints where ever it struck. The whole bottom seemed to be of this decayed and offensive matter very different from the sea bottom as it is and ordinary conditions. Dredging from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico leaves no smell whatever, where as the hand coming in contact with any of the muck from the bottom of Long Island Sound hours of washing would not rid the flesh from the smell. There was no sign of vegetable life brought up and it was, in fact impossible that any sort of life could exist when exposed to the immense mass of decayed matter. Captain Platt was of the opinion that the matter from this water was poisonous to the oysters and all other fish.” From The Day, New London, CT Friday, March 21, 1890.

In the extreme heat the quahog needed substantial deep water storms to recultivate soils but the soft shell clam did not. Living in shallows a slimmer storm was enough to produce a set. As the catches of quahog dropped New England catches of soft shellclams soared. This is an article that appeared in The New York Times on December 13, 1891 – SAD NEWS FROM THE CLAMS.”



New York Times, Dec. 13, 1891

MIDDLETOWN. DEC.12, 1891- As if Connecticut were not sufficiently afflicted with epidemic and endemic diseases, the tidings now come from the sad sea strand that clams are bound to be very scarce this Winter. Clams, say the discouraged diggers, not only are few and poor, but they are pretty nearly exterminated already all along the Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Long Island shores. Said an old clam digger to-day:

“The scarcity of clams will make the Winter a very hard one, for thousands of poor people in this and neighboring States, particularly the shore folks, who dwell along shore and depend mainly on the clam flats, after cold weather sets in, for breakfast, dinner, and supper. A few years ago the baymen at Port Jefferson, L.I., could catch eight or ten bushels of clams a day along that shore, and they got 25 cents a bushel for them; but now they have to work hard to get a bushel at a tide, while they have no trouble in getting $1 a bushel for their catch. Of course, the increased price helps them somewhat, but the trouble is that clams are getting scarcer and scarcer all the time.”

Of course, the long-neck or “soft” clams are the best, and they are found most plentifully along the Connecticut and Rhode Island shores. They are the clams that go into the old-fashioned Rhode Island clambake. The hard shells, or little necks, called quahogs in Rhode Island, are useful chiefly for chowders for the nutritious and stimulating juice they yield, and the little fellows are eaten on the half shell. They abound on the Long Island strand. Still, the finest and sweetest soft clams in the world came from the seven miles of sandy desert shore on Eastern Long Island known as Napeague Beach.”

We have other examples of high temperature sulfate reduction, trout fishers, for example, had long reported the terrible result of black waters sulfate reduction from saw dust and wood chip waste in New England Rivers. In slow moving waters in heat these cellulose organic food would turn black as (sulfur reducing) bacteria consumed them. By 1900 Brook trout habitats had retreated to the coolest, more energy filled mountain streams. In the lower slower gradient stream wood debris and leaves (and manure and sewage) also cooked into a sulfide rich broth that was so pungent – cotton soaked with glycerin stuffed into ones nostrils was needed for close up river walks (see the Fall of New England’s Cold Water Fisheries IMEP #55 October 1, 2015).

Some of the most damaging marine soil impacts in high heat was excess organic matter, saw dust, wood chips, leaves and at times manure. The shellfishiers of eastern Long Island was exposed to the impacts of duck manure in high heat the sulfur reducing bacterial population must have been very high and the description fits Sapropel today. A segment from the US Army Corps of Engineers – New York District and Suffolk County NY Publication titled Long Island Duck form history and Ecosystem Restoration Opportunities, February 2009 describes the impact of duck manure discharged into local waters in shallow bays with low flushing rates.

“As the duck waste entered surface waters, heavier suspended particles settled to the bottom near the discharge point, while lighter particles were distributed tidally until they too settled throughout the estuaries. These settled particles of decomposing organic matter created blankets of sludge that consisted of a homogeneous, black, plastic material with a strong, unpleasant odor. Duck waste is a concentrated source of bacteria, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and BOD. The organic content of duck sludge deposits is typically higher than that found in naturally occurring muds. The decomposable organic matter depleted dissolved oxygen, and anaerobic digestion resulted in generation of hydrogen sulfide gas (Federal Water Pollution Control Administration 1966). The anoxic condition during warm summer months reduced species diversity, biomass and numbers of benthic invertebrates in those areas that were highly impacted. The high organic content and fine grained texture of duck sludge also made it an unsuitable substrate for shellfish setting and growth.”

This description comes a century after similar observations in Europe streams that obtained heavy amounts of organic waste. (The Saprobien System 1902 Kolkwitz and Marsson).

By 1909 Kolkwitz and Marsson had published the first series of reports which today are known as the Saprobien System – classifying a streams ability to clear itself of organics (and listed indicator organisms) accepted in Europe while the United States looked at factory waste as chief polluter modifier of near shore coastal habitats. Both views would eventually come to realize that energy (stream flow) could move organics and helped oxygenate stagnant waters so also would colder temperatures as the saturation of oxygen was increased in cold and decreased in heat. What organic levels were able to be absorbed in cold dramatically increased, while sulfur reduction increased with the heat and the chemical signal or “smoke” of the sulfur cycle sulfide now became apparent – especially in coves, bays and salt ponds that had long connections to the sea which became “stagnant” in high heat. Coastal residents could now smell it.

To understand clam setting ability and growth – a review of the sulfur cycle in stagnating waters was most noticeable in New England. But this stagnation was to provide evidence from Europe – worldwide. Some of the first reports of anoxia – low oxygen conditions would not come from the 1980s but by the 1930s in Norway.

This stagnation was mentioned again in Land – Locked Waters And The Deposition of Black Muds by Koare Munster Strom University Geological Museum Oslo Norway 1938 and reprinted in Recent Marine Sediments edited by Parker D. Trask, 1968.

In this paper Strom (1938) details the impacts of over turn of Norwegian Fjords with a sill and therefore became stagnant, (reduced flushing) in 1938. In this country such sulfide releases were termed black water deaths.

“The biological effects of Stagnation are mainly a sterilization of the bottom sediments and the open waters from a certain depth downward. If a total renewal of the bottom water occurs, those containing hydrogen sulfide are sometimes lifted to the surface, and cause a catastrophic death of the fauna that normally lives in the upper waters. In localities with nearly fresh surface waters, a salt water fauna may have a precarious existence between the fresh waters of the surface and the poisoned waters of the deep. Bottom deposits show an extremely uneven rate of sedimentation, very often the black, organic mud forms only a thin cover, but in a few places the organic mud deposits are probably several meters thick.”

The Narrow River in Rhode Island, the eastern Long Island Duck farm case history or Mumford Cove, Groton site studies pale in comparison to the Case History for Jamaica Bay. Here at the turn of the 1900s shellfishers cultured oysters and clams in an area that now obtained organic matter, from us – sewage sludge and the fats and grease from a growing metropolitan center, New York City. In the growing heat Sapropel forms in shallow bays, easy to warm and characteristically low flushing. That is where we should look to more fully understand the chemical and biological impacts of this marine compost to marine soils. It is necessary to understand how climate and storms can create at times huge areas of seed and cultivated huge areas of marine soils. This is why New York clammers needed Nantucket seed – their capacity to reproduce had ended.

More and more researchers are looking at the chemical respiration of Sapropel itself, and one of the important study areas is Jamaica Bay. I estimate that the areas that once obtained Nantucket seed clams could have 2 to 5 feet of Sapropel over the previous clam habitats and could provide an important clue to the formation of this marine compost. This is what Mr. Hammond wanted me to direct my research efforts – his marine humus – my black mayonnaise – but to shellfishers its the cycle of sulfur and Sapropel.

Always welcome comments, suggestions and respond to all emails at tim.visel@nhboe.net

Appendix 1
Farming Oysters In An Urban Sea
John H. Volk, Aquaculture Division, CT Department of Agriculture

Milford CT 06460 - 1986

- Cultivating Marine Soils –

Note: Mr. Volk was the second Aquaculture Division Chief following the retirement of Mr. John Baker from this post in 1982. Mr. Volk was the Aquaculture Division Chief from 1982 to 2003 and passed away in after a short illness in 2007. He is missed by many involved by the Aquaculture Industry and was a key member of the 1983 State Department of Education Planning Committee to suggest building aquaculture high schools in Connecticut. (T. Visel).

In the 1980s, John Volk and I would discuss the aspects of marine soil cultivation many times, the pH modifying impact of shelling and the shell cultch itself, functioning as a predator control barrier (similar to plastic netting for soft shell clams). Oyster farmers were as a result of oyster culture, cultivating marine soils, modifying marine soil pH, and providing aspects predator control, also enhancing hard shell clam quahog production; this has been known in the industry since the first power dredges. Oyster farmers soon noticed this association (such as George McNeil) and Mr. Volk included this section in his 1986 paper about Quahog clams. “Connecticut Grown” report for the Connecticut Dept. of Agriculture, from Mr. Volk’s 1986 report – page 3:

“The hard-shell clam (quahog) is the second most valuable molluscan shellfish product generated by Connecticut’s aquaculture industry. The clams are harvested by utilizing hydraulic dredges on leased or franchised shellfish grounds. A shellfish farmer will work his leases on a rotational basis, harvesting some, while allowing recruitment and grow-out on others; thus encouraging continued productivity of the grounds.

In some locations in Connecticut, clams (Mercenaria) and oysters (Crassostrea virginica) are cultivated and harvested from the same leases. Commercial shellfish grounds in New Haven Harbor are an example of this. Annually, in the late fall or springtime, juvenile oysters are transplanted off the setting beds. Prior to planting cultch (shell) in preparing the grounds for oyster setting, the leaseholder will work the beds with hydraulic clam dredges for a period of several weeks or more. This cultivation allows for a reduction of overcrowded and older Mercenaria populations present and seems to facilitate recruitment. In anticipation of oyster setting on these same grounds, large quantities of cultch (approximately 2,000 bushel per acre) are planted. This cultch cover, which provides a substrate for oyster larvae to settle upon and attach, also seems to provide some protection from predators for the M. mercenaria populations in the sediments below. Thus, a shellfish farmer may reap the benefits of two crops from his one lease.”

Appendix #2

Sunday Cape Cod Times June 19, 1977

Clams Begin Moved to Ensure Growth in Edgartown Project
By Julia Wells – Staff Writer

It takes about three years for a softshell clam to grow from the size of a speck of sand to steamer-pot dimensions.

The tiny clam is oval with grayish-white rings, just like its grown-up counterpart. But conditions must be right for the clam to grow, and in Wasque Pond on Chappaquiddick there are hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of tiny softshell clams that are not growing.

Edgartown’s acting marine biologist Scott Colby explains that the closed pond does not have high enough salinity for the clams to grow. Softshell clams survive best in a salt content between 15 and 30, but they can survive in water as low as 10, according to Colby.

In Wasque Pond, the salinity hovers around 15. There is some leaching which occurs between the pond and the outer ocean, just a few hundred feet across a narrow breadth of sand. Thus, in the somewhat static condition of the pond, the clams are not in danger of dying, but they won’t really grow either.

“It’s a perfect nursery – our own hatchery,” Colby says.

As a result a project is actively in progress to move the seed clams to ponds where they will grow. The originator of this project is Nelson Smith, chairman of the Edgartown Shellfish Committee.

The seed is then hung in the water in burlap bags until transplanting which is done in the afternoon. The clams are planted in their new home by means of a jet pump which softens the bottom enough for good settling in. They are then covered with a fine mesh screen for protection from predators.

So far, the mortality rate has been nearly zero, and about 320,000 seed have been transplanted, according to Smith.
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