Hungry for clams? Be ready to dig deep
Sky-high prices due to range of factors
Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 18, 2019 and Island Ad-Vantages, July 18, 2019 and The Weekly Packet, July 18, 2019
by Anne Berleant
Reports of a scarcity of soft shell clams have proved not true for the peninsula and island. But the skyrocketing prices? Too true, say local take-outs, but they will go back down again come Labor Day, which is typical.
Clams are known for their succulent meat, whether dipped in cornmeal and fried or simply steamed and served in the shell, and clam diggers spend long hours ankle deep on the mudflats hoeing up the prized shellfish.
“My clam business is thriving,” said Jason Reynolds, who operates Bayview Take-out in Penobscot. Reynolds buys from a distributor and is currently paying $165 per gallon of shucked clams, up from $80 to $95 before Memorial Day. “They always go up after July 4. It’s not really off the mark from last year,” he said.
At Bagaduce Lunch in Brooksville, they tell a slightly different story. “We originally couldn’t get them and when we got them, they raised [the price] up,” said Abby Astbury, whose parents own the popular take out. Now paying $180 per gallon, Astbury said the price “has almost doubled from what we started with. But so far, the supply is good. They’re just expensive.”
Diggers in Deer Isle and Stonington are getting anywhere from $2.60 to $4 a pound wholesale while shellfish dealers are charging from $165 to $180 per gallon, shucked, according to Stonington Shellfish Warden Raelene Pert. From 12 to 15 soft shell clams equals a pound, and a shucked gallon holds from 100 to 120 clams.
“Shellfish markets are complicated, with just a few major buyers in the state that make for little competition and often not too great of a price for harvesters,” said Mike Thalhauser of Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries. But Thalhauser said he’d heard reports of diggers getting better prices for clams lately, because of red tide closures further south.
At Johnson’s Seafood, run out of Bill Johnson’s garage on Tenney Hill in Blue Hill, soft shell clams go for $4.50 a pound, a price kept low because he digs his own, said his wife Debbie. “A lot of people are coming because we’re selling for less than everyone else,” she said. “You need to have your own digger. He finds all that we need.” Still, their price is 50 cents higher than last year, Debbie said. Meanwhile, TradeWinds is asking a higher $7.99 per pound.
Clam supply dwindling overall
While locally clams are here for the taking (for those who don’t mind the hit to their wallet), there’s concern statewide over a decreasing soft shell clam population.
“Soft shell clam landings in Maine are definitely down,” Thalhauser said. “It’s tough to pin that on just declining soft shell clam populations.”
An increase in predators, including the invasive green crab, is one reason for the decline. Another, Thalhauser said, is that there just may be fewer diggers, as pay is higher on a lobster boat and prices paid to diggers have been low in recent years.
But green crabs are not the only predators for soft shell clams, said Brian Beal, a Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Maine at Machias and a researcher at the Downeast Institute.
“Even native species, such as milky ribbon worms, are having a significant impact on clam populations,” he said. “[Red tide] combined with heightened predation rates, especially on young-of-the-year clams, that are mainly due to increasing seawater temperatures, are creating the perfect storm responsible for the high clam price.”