New York's Hard Clam Industry
Long Island's history, culture, and traditions are closely linked to clams. The hard clam or northern quahog has been one of the most valuable seafood products harvested in New York for much of the past century. For every year from 1970 through 1994, the dockside value of hard clams landed in New York has exceeded that of any other fish or shellfish species landed in the state. The hard clam is one of several different species or types of clam found in New York's marine waters. While many consumers may not be familiar with the term "hard clam", they readily recognize the market names for the various sizes of hard clams: chowders (the largest size), cherries or cherrystones (medium size), and littlenecks or necks which are the smallest (and most valuable) clams which are traditionally consumed cooked or raw on the half shell.
Hard clams live in shallow coastal bay waters in areas with a sandy, muddy, or rocky bottom. The clam burrows into the bottom substrate leaving only the siphon exposed to pump water containing food and oxygen and to dispose of waste. Scientists estimate that hard clams reproduce in 1 to 2 years, and that the average number of years required to reach a commercial size is about 3 years in the New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts area. Actual growth rates are dependent on a number of factors like water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen, the quality and quantity of available food, and other factors.
Commercial hard clam harvesters are referred to as "baymen", "clammers", or "clam diggers" on Long Island where most of the state's hard clams are harvested. New York baymen work primarily in Long Island's unique and extensive system of inshore bays and waterways which are considered to be among the most productive areas for clams in the nation. Clams are harvested in Long Island's South Shore bays from Nassau county to the Great South Bay and out to Southampton Town; in the Peconic and Gardiners Bay system on the East End; and along the North Shore in Long Island Sound from the eastern tip Long Island to the western towns in Nassau county. Clams are also transplanted from Raritan Bay to certified Long Island waters where they are re-harvested after a specified period of time.
For many years New York was the leading producer of hard clams in the United States. From 1972 to 1977, the annual dockside value of hard clams was between 2 and 3 times higher than the annual dockside value of all marine finfish species combined. Historically, hard clam production in New York has fluctuated periodically. A significant increase in production occurred in the late 1940s followed by a sharp decline in the mid 1950s. Production then steadily increased to the mid 1970s when both the volume and value of New York's hard clam harvest reached record high levels, and then started to decline again. From 1980 to 1985 the annual harvest decreased from over 400,000 bushels to 183,000, increased again to almost 238,000 bushels in 1989, and then declined to 185,000 bushels in 1992. Since 1992, production increased slowly each year to 1997 when the annual harvest reached 234,000 bushels.
THE HARVESTING SECTOR
A variety of methods are used in New York to harvest hard clams. Most baymen use hand gear, primarily rakes or tongs. Rakes are the predominant type of gear. Industry sources estimate that about 80 to 90% or more of Long Island's clamdiggers use rakes, and almost all of the North Shore baymen use this gear. Baymen generally keep several different rakes on hand with different teeth and handles of different lengths which are used in areas of varying depths and bottom composition. Industry sources estimate that average expenses for rake gear are likely to be at least $500 per year. Tongs are another traditional type of gear used to harvest clams. A tong consists of two metal basket ends attached to two 10 to 18 foot long handles. Specialized skills and considerable physical stamina are required to successfully use both rakes and tongs. Raking or tonging is generally conducted from 20 to 35 foot boats with an outboard motor. Industry sources estimate that start up expenses for a bayman entering the tong or rake fishery with a new boat, motor, and gear would range between $12,000 to $15,000, and with used equipment this cost could be reduced by from one third to one half. One of the major expenses encountered by baymen is the cost of outboard motors, which generally need to be replaced every 2 to 3 years and cost between $6,000 to $7,000.
"Donkey" or "overboard" raking is a harvesting technique used in some areas of Long Island in which the clam digger rakes clams while standing in the water rather than from a small boat. Other harvesting techniques utilized on Long Island include "hacking" and "treading". Hacking is a harvesting technique in which clams are dug up at low tide from exposed mud flats using garden tools or rakes. Treading is a traditional harvesting method in which clams are dug in shallow water with the baymen's feet. These harvesting methods are favored by part-time baymen along the western portion of the South shore, but some full time baymen also use these harvesting techniques in certain areas or at certain times of the year.
There are more New Yorkers who earn all or part of their living in the hard clam fishery than from any other fishery in the state. Over the past 25 years, the number of shellfish diggers' permits issued in New York declined significantly from a peak of almost 10,000 in 1976 to about one-fourth that number by 1985. However, the number of shellfish digger permits issued by the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation each year over the past decade has remained relatively stable. During the last 10 years, the number of diggers' permits has not varied by more than 100-150 permits from one year to the next. The largest change occurred from 1997 when 3,130 permits were issued to 1998 when 2,504 permits were issued.
Because clams live in water close to the shore they are susceptible to many human and natural hazards such as harvesting pressure, poor water quality, and natural predators. To ensure that the clam resource remains sustainable, management strategies are necessary. Both New York state and counties have some jurisdiction over the management of the hard clam resource, but most of the towns on Long Island also have jurisdiction granted from colonial times over the living hard clam resources on grounds within their boundaries. Most towns have hard clam management programs and actively work with local baymen to manage and sustain the resource. Many of the towns where hard clams are currently harvested have a baymen's association that works with town officials and programs to actively manage the local clam resource. Towns often work with baymen to develop regulations to control harvesting, to seed or stock certain areas, to improve water quality or conduct water testing programs to maximize the amount of local waters available for harvesting, or other activities. There are many examples of effective programs in which town's have used baymen's license fees and town resources to build hatcheries, to buy clam seed, to restock local waters, or to assist with water quality testing to maximize the areas available to local baymen for harvesting.
SHELLFISH REGULATORY PROGRAM
Water quality problems associated with the urban and suburban growth in almost all coastal areas of the United States, including Long Island, is one of the most significant factors that have and will continue to have an impact on baymen and their ability to harvest hard clams. Because hard clams are harvested in shallow coastal waters susceptible to microbiological contamination and they are also traditionally eaten raw on the half shell, there is a greater potential for food safety problems as compared to other foods that are generally cooked before they are eaten.
Since the 1920s, a comprehensive regulatory system designed to ensure that clams and other bivalve shellfish are safe to eat has been in place. This program is called the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP). The NSSP is overseen by the federal Food and Drug Administration which works collaboratively with shellfish producing states and the shellfish industry through the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC). This system has developed and utilizes mandated guidelines and procedures for evaluating shellfish harvesting areas, for shellfish handling and tagging procedures, and requires that harvesters, processors, and shippers be licensed, and specifies necessary enforcement and monitoring procedures to ensure product safety. The Department of Environmental Conservation is the designated state shellfish control agency that manages and implements this regulatory program in New York. The DEC oversees the monitoring, evaluation, and classification of shellfish harvesting waters, licenses shellfish diggers, processors, shippers and dealers, and is responsible for the enforcement of all state regulations and guidelines mandated by the NSSP. In addition to these requirements, by 1998 all shellfish shippers in New York (and the rest of the country) were required to develop a state of the art food safety control system called HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) for their operation. This system requires that each business identify all significant potential food safety hazards that could be associated with their operation and develop and implement a plan that includes monitoring, record keeping, and corrective actions to ensure that these hazards have been prevented, eliminated, or reduced to an acceptable level.
SHIPPERS, WHOLESALERS AND CLAM MARKETS
The majority of New York's hard clam production is sold as live shellstock. Local dealers traditionally buy the clams harvested each day by local baymen. The clams are transported to the dealer's facility where they are sorted and packed for shipment to other wholesalers or are sold directly to retail markets, restaurants, or other food service establishments. Some baymen sell their clams directly to retail markets or restaurants. Industry sources estimate that approximately 80% of the product harvested by New York baymen is purchased by dealers, and between 20% to 50% of the baymen working in various areas of Long Island sell some of the clams they harvest directly to retailers or restaurants.
Both dealers and baymen who sell hard clams or other bivalve shellfish to other shippers, retailers or food service businesses are required to purchase a shellfish shippers permit each year. The type of permit required depends on the type of products handled and where these products are shipped: in interstate commerce, within the state, or in the county where the shellfish are harvested. The number of shellfish shippers permits issued by the DEC in 1998 and 1995 are listed below.
For a complete explanation of each of these permit categories contact the NYS DEC Shellfisheries Bureau in East Setauket for a copy of the NYS Environmental Conservation Law booklet for Marine Fisheries. A complete list of all shippers in each state that is certified to ship shellfish in interstate commerce is also updated and available each month from the FDA or can be viewed via the Internet at the FDA Web site at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/-ear/shellfis.html. There were 157 New York firms on the FDA's Interstate Certified Shellfish Shippers List on August 1, 1999.
New York is one of the largest suppliers and has one of the largest consumer markets for hard clams in the country. Shellfish wholesalers and shippers supply the large number of retail markets and restaurants in New York as well as many other parts of the U.S. New York City's Fulton Fish Market has traditionally handled more hard clams than any other market in the country, and traditionally 50% or more of New York harvested clams have been sold in Fulton Market. However, in recent years the amount of NY harvested clams sold in Fulton has declined as dealers and baymen have increased their direct marketing activities. In 1993, approximately 16 percent of NY's hard clam harvest was sold at Fulton Market. Clams from all of the shellfish producing states along the Atlantic coast are also shipped to Fulton Market and other wholesale dealers in the state. In recent years, well over half of the clams sold in Fulton Market were from Connecticut and Rhode Island.
OUTLOOK AND OPPORTUNITIES
New York's hard clam industry has stabilized somewhat after the significant fluctuations that occurred in both production and consumer demand for clams in the 1980s. While some baymen express frustration about the difficulties in making a living in the 1990s compared to a decade ago, many baymen have found opportunities to continue to make a living on the water by diversifying and selling some of their products directly. Clam dealers and wholesalers are encouraged about the future because of stronger market conditions and new market opportunities. Important industry issues and challenges are related to changing market conditions, competition between supply sources such as transplanted clams, increasing production of wild and cultured clams in other states or regions, and changes in management and handling and distribution regulations.
Overall, two related issues, resource availability and water quality, appear to be of most concern to the hard clam industry. However, there is optimism for the future as water quality in many areas around Long Island continues to improve. For example, Charlie Murphy, President of the North Shore Baymen's Association is cautiously optimistic about the future and recent improvements in water quality. He commented that "efforts like the Long Island Sound Study to educate the public on water quality issues are important, and the recent improvements in water quality have helped baymen and the hard clam resource in Long Island Sound". Other baymen, baymen's organizations, and dealers have also seen improvements in recent years and expressed optimism for the future of New York's hard clam industry.