Clammers are vanishing from the New England shoreline and the New England economic landscape. For centuries, New Englanders raked, scooped, and shuffled in the muck for that tasty mollusk, the clam. But today, a dearth of diggers is plunging a muddy coastal business into the mire.
America’s industry for the wild harvesting of softshell clams is located almost entirely along the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts. Clamdiggers, also called “clammers,” wrench the shellfish from tidal mud. They sell their finds for use in hearty chowders, pastas, and surfside clambakes.
Digging takes dedication. Clammers scout out a clam bed, wait until the tide is between knee- and chest-deep, wade in barefoot, . . . and begin shuffling backwards. That’s right: Shuffling. Backwards.
Hardcore clammer KenK writes on a clamming website, “You will feel the clams under your feet as lumps . . . dive down and dig them out. (I use my hands).” He warns about pinchy crabs but says, “The real danger is kicking some barnacle-encrusted rocks. (Heels are tougher than toes, but it still hurts.)” Ouch.
Alternately, clammers can scoop mud using an angled rake. Either way, clam diggers work hard to collect the mollusks they sell to seafood dealers.
Sludge-trudging clamdiggers are a hardy bunch. They’ve weathered the difficulties of an aging workforce, shellfish-eating predators, too warm waters, and fickle seafood markets. Even this summer’s pandemic couldn’t hold back many diggers from working the coastal clam flats. But it may have created another hurdle.
“If they shut down the borders now, . . . we’d be in some big trouble,” says Maine clammer Wendell Cressey. “We need to be able to ship [clams] around the country.”
Both Maine and Massachusetts have seen harvests dip in recent years. Maine clammers failed to top 1.6 million pounds of clam meat four straight years. In decades past, they regularly harvested two or three times that.
Clammers can earn good clams—about $2 per pound (eight-12 clams)—at the docks in a good year. The price is close to that this year, says Clint Goodenow, treasurer of the Maine Clammers Association.
Trouble is, the clamdigger population is dwindling. The number of licensed shellfish harvesters is down this year—which is down from the previous year. It’s only a fraction of the number of clammers in the 1970s.
There may be an upside to fewer harvesters. Brian Beal, professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias, says, “There’s enough ‘product’ left for the few who must make their living off the flats.” That news should make serious clammers happy as . . . clams.