Clams have always been one of the most dependable resources our bays on Long Island and New Jersey have provided. American Indians clammed before we came on the Mayflower. After eating the clams, they used the dark part of the shells as their currency. Once the overfished resource was so depleted, it was hard to turn things around. The eel grass died and the clams needed the eel grass. Planting more eel grass did not seem to solve the problem. A Times article in the mid-1980s blamed coastal development that brought sewage and storm-water runoff problems to the bays where clams had once flourished. The article described two clammers interviewed as having worked all day for about $120 worth of clams. Subtract boat maintenance, expenses and insurance, their round trip to the boat, their trip to sell the clams and you won’t find much left for two men to pay bills with.
By 2003 the L.I. Herald added overharvesting, brown tide, creation of reservoirs and the building of bridges to the list of reasons for the decline of bay industries. The effect of ocean acidification has lately become an issue studied to see if the changes in the chemical makeup of the bays will threaten the Long Island shellfish population. The effect of acidification is greater in the bays and creeks than in the ocean. The Director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Chris Pickerell sees it as something to be concerned about in the future.
Today clams in Southern New Jersey are mostly a product of aquaculture. Clammers have turned to farming, planting the clam seed to assure that it will grow and thrive. The seeds grow on leased bay bottom. Clammers put down screening that protects clam seed as it grows, from predators such as crabs and rays.
Bill Mayer was a clammer in the Brigantine, New Jersey area and the decline in the clam population changed his occupation from clammer to aquaculturist. He’s now a clam farmer with two hatcheries, one in Brigantine and one in Atlantic City, both concentrating on seed for littlenecks. Bill likes to clam and still goes out now and then, but there are far fewer clams out there. There are still wild growing clams in Northern New Jersey. A depuration process makes it possible to bring clams from bad waters to be depurated and then transplanted in an area of approved clean water from which they can later be safely taken and eaten after a specified time in good water. The Mayer family got into the aquaculture end of clamming in 1984. The Mayer hatcheries produce seed to support their own business needs and they sell seed to other clam farmers.
Their website includes a video taken through a microscope in the hatchery of a clam egg just after it fertilized. (Clamdaddy.com/hatchery). They sell their littlenecks at the Brigantine Farmers Market where you can usually find Bill, his wife, his son or his daughter. Bill’s favorite recipes for New England clam chowder and Clams Casino follow.
Steve Kuhn is a clammer who caught his first clam when he was twenty years old. He went out with a friend, probably in 1968, he thinks, and they clammed off Heckscher. They came back with two bushels each of littleneck clams. He remembers throwing back as much seed as clams that they took. It was a good day. He loved it then and he loves it now. He’s 73 and still clams year-round. Steve also does landscaping but he thinks the landscaping is probably 10% of his work time and clamming is 90%. Steve’s sons sometimes go out with him clamming and also go to the festivals where he sells his Clam Power shirts and hats.
When it’s cold they sometimes walk out on the ice with a chainsaw if the ice is thick. If it’s not so thick they take the boat. He’s now clamming in deeper water. The clams in shallow water are easier to get and are the first taken.
Back in the 1970s Steve was going to North Carolina State University as a design major. He worked at clamming in the summer and went to school during the school year. He had learned how to do silk screening and realized the time was probably right to design a clam for a Clam Power shirt and silk screen it. He tried his hand at designing a defiant looking clam, came up with one he liked that he thought could represent the clam industry, silk screened it on a shirt and a startup business was born. Steve donates some of the proceeds of his Clam Power shirt business to the Nature Conservancy to help reseed the bay with clams. Today you can find the shirts at any of the Brinkmann’s Hardware Stores or direct from Steve through his website, www.Clampower.org.
Clammers are resourceful people. When Clay Colefield thought he could pay bills and his younger brother thought he could finance his education (MBA) by clamming, they needed a boat. Neither of them had the money to buy a boat so, with a little help from their father, they built their own boat.
Clamming was never satisfying to Clay. It was a means to an end. It paid the bills. Clay’s New York State Department of Environmental Conservation job provided him with the kind of environmental work he was interested in doing. Clay’s interest in biology took him through more than 34 years with the DEC during which time he worked on a boat several days a week out in the bay sampling, came back to the lab and office where he measured and analyzed the date he collected and got involved in mosquito abatement and worked with Article 25 permits.
For about 23 years Clay was also involved with the CSEA, the New York State employee union. He was Vice President of the SBU CSEA and President of the DEC CSEA as well as the delegate to the CSEA in Albany. He started giving the defensive driving classes for the union, still gives them and also gives them for his church.
In his spare time Clay squeezed in several semesters of law school, partly to learn the legal end of the new business he would be starting. Clay started a business as a permit consultant. He gets word of mouth referrals from previous clients. His only advertising is a magnetic sign with his company name that he puts on his car door when he’s working. People call him, he gets information, they go over the details and he looks at the property. To get a DEC permit he will probably have to file an Army Corps of Engineers, Town, State, Building Department, and possibly a Community Association permit. When he next meets the client he has a contract prepared which he explains in detail. The client pays up front and if he or she doesn’t accept the contract, he leaves. He keeps the contract in case the client decides to use his services, which often happens.
Clamming seems like a long time back now to Clay. He has a 31’ Bertram that he keeps out east that would take him to any place he wanted to clam but he has no interest in clams or clamming. His kids all eat them, he says.
When you speak to clammers or former clammers who look back and have wonderful memories of working on the bay, they speak of the way they learned to make it through life’s challenges because of the work ethic, the toughness and the tenacity they had to bring to work on the bay, how it helped them in their lives even if they didn’t continue to clam. It seems we are learning how important fish and shellfish are for our health just as they are disappearing as a result of too many of us sharing space with them. We have to remember that the next time a politician says we should increase the density near the waterfront to save money.