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Top Species: Clams

A well-managed industry tries to increase product visibility

Clams’ strong sustainability, healthful profile are marketed to buyers. - Photo courtesy of Ballard Fish & Oyster
By Joanne Friedrick
January 01, 2013

Lauded as the backbone of chowder and seaside summer parties, clams continue to be among the most consumed seafood species in the United States. And unlike some other seafood species, the clam supply remains abundant and competitively priced.

In Virginia, where clam aquaculture is prevalent, recent figures show that growers increased their seed plantings — and their sales — in 2011. About 450 million hardshells (Mercenaria mercenaria) were planted, up 22 percent from 2010. While the 2011 figure is still far below 2007’s approximately 590-million-seed tally, the industry is on the rise again, notes Mike Hutt, executive director of the Virginia Marine Products Board in Norfolk, Va.

“Talking with the growers, I think the market is turning,” says Hutt. Growth has started to come back, after sales dipped in 2009. In 2011, growers sold about 182 million clams, up 12 percent from 2010. Total revenue for hardshell clam producers in 2011 was $26 million — a slight increase of $1 million from the prior year, according to the Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture Situation and Outlook Report.

The report noted that smaller niche growers — those with sales of less than 50,000 clams — reported average prices as high as 22 cents per clam. The average price of 16 cents has remained steady for the past two years, up from 13 cents from 2005 to 2008.

Hutt says Virginia’s growers have not only expanded their sales to other parts of the United States, but have also begun tapping into the Asian market, where demand is increasing as the middle class there grows.

“They do grow millions of clams in Asia,” says Hutt, “but I still think there is an opportunity,” in part because of the unique flavor profile.

Chad Ballard III, president of Ballard Fish & Oyster Co., which operates Cherrystone Aqua Farms in Cheriton, Va., says with the warmer winter in 2011-2012, demand has been on the rise. Sales have gone up 25 percent, he says, as the clambake season was extended due to milder temperatures and more people were eating out.

It takes about 30 months to grow clams to market size, says Ballard, adding his company has also been increasing production as necessary. Cherrystone grows its clams in both bayside and seaside locations around Chesapeake Bay. The clams are sold nationwide with the majority sold in New England, although business is growing on the West Coast and in the Midwest.

When Superstorm Sandy blew through New York and New Jersey, Ballard says he fielded lots of calls from people who typically buy wild New Jersey clams. “We were able to help out somewhat,” he says, noting that his supply wasn’t impacted by the storm.

As a cultivated product, clams haven’t had to deal with the same questions that accompany farmed finfish, says Ballard. “Sustainability is a big part of what we do,” he says, noting they grow in the same areas as wild clams and can impart that wild flavor to the farmed product.

A healthy reputation

Clams are continuing to gain attention among retailers and chefs, aided by their sustainability story and role as a healthy protein, says Ballard. He recalls that at one point Wegmans, which has conducted a price freeze program on popular items, included littleneck clams on that list along with other summertime items such as hot dog buns, sunscreen and salad greens.

Another store placed clams on promotion at the entrance of the supermarket, he says, adding “clams don’t usually get that kind of attention.”

Hutt says the health aspects of clams — high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids but low in calories — is promotable, along with the use of smaller clams for the halfshell business. 

The outlook is rosy within the wild clam business as well, says Guy Simmons, VP-marketing and product development at Sea Watch International in Easton, Md.

The harvest of Atlantic surf clams (Spisula solidissima) was about 65 percent of allocation and the harvest of ocean quahogs was about 70 percent and there is still plenty of room for growth in the offshore clam business, says Simmons. Through Nov. 15, 2012, fishermen had landed about 2 million bushels of surf clams and about 2.9 million bushels of quahogs, with an additional 63,000-plus bushels of Maine quahogs. 

A survey in 2011 is being evaluated by the New England Science Center in Worcester, Mass., to determine the quotas for 2014 to 2016. 

But after 35 years of management, the wild clam industry is unlikely to see a reduction in its quota, adds Simmons.

Like Virginia, Maryland felt little impact from Sandy, he says, except that the fleet was tied up for eight days as it waited out the storm. “Coming into this time of year, we had a lot of inventory,” he notes, “so the tie-up didn’t affect us.”

Although clams are plentiful, demand has decreased slightly, says Simmons, who attributes it to the declining restaurant traffic as the United States works through the economic recession. 

Clam imports are also taking some of the market share, he says. U.S. imports of live clams from Canada during 2011 hit 4.3 million pounds, while imports of prepared/preserved clams from China in 2011 reached more than 18.2 million pounds. 

Offering value-added products is one way to build a market for domestic product, and Sea Watch has introduced several items. The Narragansett Beer Batter Clam Strips are now in their second year of sales, notes Simmons, while new Premium Stuffed Clams — a blend of clams, cheese, onions, peppers and spices — debuted in October. The stuffed clams are aimed at higher-end foodservice establishments, says Simmons.

Sea Watch has also worked with Tony’s of Cedar Key, Fla., a three-time champion at the Newport Chowder Fest, to produce the chowder for foodservice distribution in Florida and parts of New England.

Developing recipes and conducting the Creative Clam Challenge during the International Boston Seafood Show are both ways Sea Watch is working to improve the clam’s status. “If you look at the Top 10 seafoods, clams are hanging on by a thread,” explains Simmons. “We’re trying to raise the awareness about what kind of protein clams are.”

Old recipe, new ideas

While new takes on clams may spur future growth, restaurateurs such as Duke Moscrip, who operates six Duke’s Chowder House restaurants in the Seattle area, are finding success with a long-time clam chowder recipe.

Duke’s recipe is based on one developed by Moscrip’s grandfather in Massachusetts. “If we didn’t eat our chowder, we didn’t get dessert,” he says. 

Still, when he first opened his restaurant more than 30 years ago, he served chicken noodle soup, not chowder. It wasn’t until he won multiple times at a chowder contest that he decided to make it a permanent part of the menu.

Moscrip sources his clams from Chesapeake Bay through a division of Sea Watch that provides IQF clams without added flavoring or color enhancers. These clams impart “a fragrant, perfumy taste” to the chowder that is so intense he had to increase the herbs in his recipe to balance it.

Duke’s sells about 150,000 bowls of chowder each year, and each bowl has about 10 percent clams by weight. The restaurants also feature steamed manila clams, but chowder outsells every other product 10-to-1, says Moscrip.

“Clams by themselves aren’t everyone’s favorite,” he concedes, “but when combined with herbs, potatoes and bacon, it’s a hit.”

Recently, Moscrip took a trip to New York with his son to scout for ideas for his seafood-driven menu. While it’s unlikely he’ll add Manhattan clam chowder, Moscrip did say he was looking for clam appetizer ideas to add to his offerings.

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

Find other SeaFood Business articles with clams here.

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