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Shellfish: Clams

Surf clam, ocean quahog harvests down; Manila clam production on rise

Chris Anderson
November 01, 2005

The market for surf clams, described by one processor as the “Cadillac of clams” because of its culinary versatility, has been a smooth ride for the past several of years.

This stability is due to one of the oldest ITQ (individual transferable quota) fishing management plans in the country. Implemented in the early 1990s, the ITQ system has resulted in fewer boats fishing for surf clams, an integrated ocean-to-market product pipeline (in some cases processors own the boats that fish for the clams), supplies and prices with very little fluctuation and a well-managed, sustainable resource.

Despite this, the 2005 surf clam harvest will likely fall well short of the 3.4 million-bushel quota, following five years that saw an average harvest of 98 percent of the quota. According to statistics supplied by the Northeast Region Fisheries Statistics Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, totals began tailing off at the beginning of September, and at press time, with just 10 weeks left in the season, only 58 percent of the quota had been harvested.

Landings of ocean quahogs are also lagging this year, after a long period during which fishermen harvested in excess of 90 percent of the quahog quota. Surf clams, which mature in five to seven years, are dredge harvested in waters close to shore.

Ocean quahogs, also called mahogany clams, have darker and tougher meat and are primarily found 20 to 30 miles offshore. They are also slow growing — many of the harvested quahogs are 40 to 100 years old.

“I think there are going to be some clams left in the water this year,” says George Richardson, former president of Rhode Island’s Blount Seafood and an advisor for surf clams and quahogs for the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council.

The reason for the reduced harvest of surf clams and quahogs, according to Richardson, is slowing demand from big industrial buyers such as Campbell’s and Progresso, which use the clams for chowders.

“They didn’t advertise this year, and when they don’t, sales go way down,” Richardson says.

As a result, processors like Blount are sitting on large stocks of canned clams, and it will take a return of industrial buyers and some time to clear the overstock. Because of this, Richardson expects the 2006 harvest could also lag behind landings of earlier years.

But the slackened demand isn’t having a significant effect on prices paid to fishermen, mostly because processors have contracts with the clammers that guarantee per-bushel prices. As in previous years, average per-bushel prices paid to fishermen range from $12.50 to $14.

At Sea Watch International, Skip McAuliffe, director of national sales, says the company is looking to broaden its scope.

“The biggest thing we are trying to do now with surf clams that we couldn’t do three or four years ago is create new products for the market,” says McAuliffe.

One such product, a much thicker-than-ordinary version of a breaded clam strip Sea Watch calls a surfer, has been selling very well.

Creating new products for the market may be the way out of the current reliance on soup manufacturers, though it is important to note that surf clam quotas have risen steadily over the past five years. When the 2005 season is over, total harvest levels could be on par with the surf clams harvests of 1999 and 2000 at about 2.5 million bushels.

Manila clams
Chefs looking for good clams to leave in the shell for attractive restaurant preparations often turn to the Manila clam. Most Manilas on the market today are farm-raised at hundreds of aquaculture operations from California north through Washington and into British Columbia.

Harvest totals since the late 1990s have risen continually as more operations come online, and today the harvest is about 500 metric tons a year. Because they are farm-raised, Manila clams are a product chefs can use as regular feature on a restaurant menu.

“It’s the only clam I use,” says Charles Ramseyer, executive chef of Ray’s Boathouse Café in Ballard, Wash. “It’s a staple item I keep on the menu all the time.”

In addition to being located in the hotbed of Manila clam production, Ramseyer says he likes the Manila because it cooks quickly and makes for attractive presentations.

When it comes to buying, Ramseyer suggests restaurants work directly with the growers to develop a relationship and set pricing. Currently, Ramseyer pays just under $3 per pound for medium (20-count) Manilas and takes deliveries of anywhere from 120 to 350 pounds from his grower twice a week.

Ramseyer realizes not all restaurants can do such high volume or buy direct. When working with a distributor, he suggests finding out the schedule of clam deliveries.

“You want to know when they get the fresh stuff in, so you can get deliveries that day or the next day,” he says. “You need to look at the tags to make sure what the harvest dates are. It happens a lot, that when you order Monday, the tags say [the clams] came out of the water on Thursday. You don’t want that.” Getting clams a day or two after harvest helps restaurants make sure they are sold well before

Manila clams have a decent shelf life, according to Jeff Daniels, president of Marinelli Shellfish in Seatac, Wash.

“During most of the year, the shelf life is seven days, easily, and maybe even 10 days,” he says.

Due to this consistency, growers like Little Skookum Shellfish Growers in Shelton, Wash., offer a seven-day shelf-life guarantee, except when the clams hit their reproductive season in late summer.

“They are weaker during their spawning,” Daniels says. “Because they don’t have the same shelf life as the rest of the year, some of our customers will pick alternate products during that time.”

Daniels, who ships to restaurants and distributors in 30 states, says pricing for Manilas has stayed very consistent over the past few years at just under $3 per pound, though he says there is a small amount of wild-harvest Manilas that sell for as low as $2.

“But the quality on those and the sizes are not as consistent,” he notes, “so I like to stay with the farm-raised clams.”

If fuel prices stay high, Daniels says, buyers can expect to see the price creeping up as growers look to factor in the higher costs of getting the clams to market.

“My prices have gone up a few pennies because of the higher fuels costs,” says Ramseyer. “But it hasn’t been a big increase.”

Softshell clams

Back East, the market for softshell clams took a hit early this year as one of the largest red-tide blooms closed clam flats in Maine in May. In June the closures spread from Cape Cod up through the Canadian Maritimes.

But it wasn’t just red tide that caused problems this year, according to Tom Howell, owner of Spinney Creek Shellfish in Eliot, Maine. The state’s new rain water runoff guidelines that trigger clam-flat closings lowered 24-hour rainfall limits from 3 inches to 2 inches.

A rainy spring, which is when softshell production typically ramps up, kept clam flats closed and saw bushel prices hit $90, which is more typical of mid-summer.

“I looked at historical data and figured that these new guidelines would increase closing due to rainfall from about two per year to as many as seven,” Howell says. He seems on target, as so far this year Maine clam flats have been closed six separate times due to excessive rainfall.

Combined with red tide closures, the price for softshells started high and stayed high. While September prices did recede to the mid-$60s per bushel, rainfall closures in October again had the price up to nearly $90.

“I have friends in the business who tell me that no one year is ever like another,” Howell says. “Red tide you expect every year, but if we are looking at four to seven other closures each year from rain, then I think prices could stay high.”

Hardshell clams
At Certified Clam, a producer of wild hardshell clams in Highland, N.J., Sales Manager Tony Costa says he received numerous inquiries from his New England buyers looking to find whatever stock they could get their hands on during the softshell flat closures, “but I didn’t try to gouge them on price.”

But with many clam flats closed for roughly two months, Costa said prices for hardshell clams early in the summer were up from 10 to 20 percent.

“The problem was, when it opened up again in July, the people went out in full force to make up for the time they had missed, and suddenly the market in New England was flooded with clams,” he says.

But Certified and others who produce hardshell clams along their habitat in the Mid-Atlantic states only get a small portion of their business from New England. The market for littlenecks, topnecks, cherrystones and chowder clams has remained consistent over the past few years and is expected to stay so for the foreseeable future.

Recent prices from Fulton Fish Market showed 400-count bags of littlenecks selling for $90, only slightly higher than last year.

When it comes to buying hardshell clams, Costa recommends checking the tags for harvest date.

“Clams should also be closed tightly, or if they are open a little, should close tightly when you touch them, and they shouldn’t have any smell at all,” he says.

He also suggests knowing what area the clams come from.

“If you are getting a coldwater clam, you are going to get a meatier product and one with a longer shelf life. Warmwater clams are just the opposite since they grow faster,” Costa notes.

Beyond that, it’s a question of preference in meat color, texture and flavor. Clams from sandy bottoms have lighter shells and lighter-colored meats, while darker shells and orange-tinted meats indicate clams from a muddy bottom.

 November 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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