BRISTOL, R.I. — Lou Frattarelli eased his flatbed truck into the loading zone at Andrade’s Catch, a small seafood shop in this town on Narragansett Bay. He had just tied his 24-foot clam skiff to the marina beside the firehouse and offloaded his catch. He had four sacks of quahogs to sell, raked on the still-running tide from the bottom of the bay.
Davy Andrade, one of the shop owners, met him at the door. Mr. Andrade was buying, one of the few shellfish dealers in the state still employing clammers and bringing a local seafood staple to residents.
“What do you want me doing tomorrow?” Mr. Frattarelli asked, hoping for one more day’s pay.
“Another 500, if you can,” Mr. Andrade answered.
Five hundred littlenecks is far fewer clams than an experienced quahogger can rake in a day from the rich waters around Prudence Island, where Mr. Frattarelli had been working. But in the age of the coronavirus, it amounted to a boon.
Many fishing ports across the United States, long imperiled and struggling under strict regulations and the declines of valuable fish and shellfish stocks, have fallen even quieter in the pandemic.
For Rhode Island’s quahoggers, as the harvesters of wild hard-shelled clams are known, the circumstances have gone past difficult to bizarre. While their neighbors struggled to buy food during surges of panic shopping that emptied grocery store shelves, quahoggers found the market for fresh clams — a food rich in protein and minerals — abruptly shut down.
Until two weeks ago, much of the East Coast’s daily harvest of wild clams was channeled through wholesale buyers to restaurants and raw bars, many of them in New York City. When bars and restaurants were closed, wholesalers stopped buying.
In Rhode Island, where state regulations forbid quahoggers from selling clams directly to consumers, the result is that the fleet has all but stopped working — even though catches were high and people, wary of going into crowded and picked-over grocery stores, are eager for healthy meals.
The situation is even more confounding because quahogging was a quintessential form of social distancing before social distancing was a public mandate. A lone quahogger on a skiff, away from everyone else while rhythmically scratching a bull rake over the bay floor, just happens to align with the world’s new prescription for living — all while producing food.
Andrade’s Catch has managed to support quahog sales, at least at a small scale. While the shop does a robust wholesale business, it also runs a retail shop out front. By shifting operations almost entirely to retail, it has kept a few boats on the water.
“I’ve got about six guys I am buying from,” Mr. Andrade said, and he rotates their days. “We want to keep the guys going.”
On a typical winter day, the shop would buy from 12 to 15 boats, he said. In the summer, it often buys from 25. On Tuesday, three boats went out, each told to catch the shop limit. Andrade’s Catch was paying 20 cents a littleneck, down from 30 cents earlier this month. Quahoggers fortunate enough to get an order could gross $100 a day.
That pay was something but not enough, said David Andrade, Davy’s father and a co-founder of the shop with his wife. “I’ve been telling the diggers, take it easy, wait for the restaurants to come back,” he said. “But in all reality, you’ve got to make $200 a day to pay for the boat.”
Even these small orders have been helped, Davy Andrade said, by an unexpected form of local generosity: A town resident donated $600 to provide free clams to Andrade’s Catch customers. The donation became the impetus for a retail special: Anyone spending $24 or more on seafood this week received 24 free clams, enough for a pot of chowder. (The donor asked to remain anonymous.)
Even without the special, the shop has still remained busy with sales of other seafood.
Mr. Andrade’s fiancée, Victoria Young, runs an Instagram account that posts daily lists of available seafood, much of which comes from the trawler fleet working in nearby New Bedford, Mass. She also encourages shoppers to place orders by phone and to collect purchases curbside — reducing traffic in the store and potential dangers to the customers and staff.
Between customers, Ms. Young sprays and wipes anything they might touch — the counters, the A.T.M. and the frame, glass and handles of the front door.
Like most everyone else, Ms. Young has faced deep personal disruption. She is from the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and has family there she is worried about. Her people were expected to be gathering soon for her wedding, not living in indefinite and escalating isolation, uncertainty and fear.
“We were supposed to get married next week,” she said, looking at Davy. “We’ve postponed it.”
The shop, meanwhile, has commanded their full attention, in part because supermarkets have been overwhelmed, and a small shop, with fewer customers, can feel safer than a big store. Andrade’s Catch, the couple said, has been drawing about 35 customers a day, and sometimes more. “Last weekend we got mobbed,” Mr. Andrade said.
Mr. Frattarelli, the quahogger who offloaded his catch, is grateful for the shop’s continued orders. But he expressed grave worry.
“I’ve fished through hurricane closures before,” he said. “It would be one week, two weeks, maybe a month and you’d be back. The thing that scares me about this is there is no light at the end of the tunnel.”
P.J. Russo, another quahogger who fished Tuesday, suggested that the tunnel would get darker for many diggers fast. As independent skiff owners, quahoggers earn cash essentially by piecework. They have no salary. Many lack backup employment or cash reserves, he said.
Tuesday was the only day Mr. Russo had worked in the last two weeks. The rent money he owed his landlord for March is gone. “That was the last of our cash, and we have now spent it on food,” he said. “When you run out of money and you run out of food, that’s when things get crazy.”
He said he was shucking some of the catch he could not sell, then freezing the meat, figuring that he might have to live off it soon.