Big bivalves make a good catch
by Amandine Surier
I thought I knew clams. For the past ten years I have studied, spawned, nursed, fished, shucked, and eaten many of those neat little bivalves. Quahogs, soft shells, razors, even the European clam Ruditapes decussatus. I thought I was a pro, until I heard that a small commercial fishing boat was getting rigged for sea clamming out of Menemsha harbor. Sea clams? I quickly checked the nautical chart scotch-taped to the slanted ceiling of the MV Shellfish Group office. There it was, drawn in pencil in the southern offshore waters, a rough location for the elusive sea clam. Spisula solidissima, nice to meet you.
The sea clam or surf clam is a much larger clam than familiar inshore clams. An adult measures 4 to 9 inches and can weigh up to a pound. They are fished in offshore waters with hydraulic dredges and can be found up to 120 feet deep. Sea clams generally arrive on our plates as clam strips, pies, chowder, or bottled clam juice. They have a sweet, delicate flavor and make for a great sauce base.
Intrigued, I wanted to know more. So I called Ty Rossi for some clam talk. Ty is a deck hand on Menemsha’s only sea-clamming boat: Captain Alec Gale’s Jane Lee. “I’ll tell you anything you want to know,” said Ty smiling, “but I can’t tell you where they are”. “Can you give me a general vicinity?” I ventured cautiously. “Hmm, Martha’s Vineyard?” This man should be in government. “There are a few people that want to know where they are,” Ty explained “It’s a very sought-after license and a very sought-after product.”
On good days, when the wind is down, the Jane Lee motors out of Menemsha in the dark and dredges from sunup to sundown. Twelve to thirteen hours of dredging is hard work. Add two hours each way to get to the calm beds and back, it makes for a long day on the water.
Once caught, the clams are bagged and brought back to Menemsha for “purging.” A quick saltwater bath lets them spit out sand and mud particles accumulated in their mantle cavity and digestive tract. A purged clam is a much higher quality clam. It sells on a different market, for a higher price. “It’s cleaner, easier to process,” says Ty. “It’s also a true weight, what you extract is 100 percent raw clam juice.” The clams are processed locally, mostly in New Bedford and Gloucester and can be found on shelves and restaurants up and down the coast of Massachusetts.
The 55 foot Jane Lee is a quarter of the size of the boats coming from New Bedford for sea clams. Captain Gale competes with big business fleets that are larger, better equipped and permitted to fish much larger grounds. But they are hanging on. So far, they have an advantage, they know where to go, and they are not telling.