« November 2007 Table of Contents
Top 10 Species: Clams
The popular filter feeder takes on a healthy role
By Thyra Porter
November 01, 2007
Researchers believe man's first clambake may have taken
place on the South African coast more than 160,000 years ago,
making clams perhaps the first seafood harvested by our ancient
And clams remain a favorite among consumers today, whether
cooked into chowders and pastas or served up raw on the half
"Clam consumption is growing," says Rocco Ruggerio,
president of Ruggerio Seafood in Newark, N.J., which deals
mostly with imported clams.
Clams in the U.S. market are both farmed and wild, and sold
live and processed in a variety of forms. Frozen, canned and
fresh product is available all year, though peak clam season is
in spring and summer.
Surf clams ( Spisula solidissima ) are the "fried clams"
most restaurant menus feature. They average from 4 1/2 to 8
inches across and are taken by hydraulic dredges from sand or
gravel habitats to depths of 10 to 300 feet, largely on the
East Coast, from Long Island to Virginia.
Surf clams are too coarse to be eaten live and are processed
onshore, where the "tongue" is used for fried clam strips. Most
of the other surf clam meat is processed for soups and pasta
For most consumers, Mercenaria mercenaria , also known as
the hardshell or quahog, is the clam of note. Hardshells are
the most valuable U.S. clam species mostly steamed, or offered
raw on the halfshell.
While harvested by hardy diggers with rakes and muck boots,
the hard-shell clam is also widely farmed along the East Coast
in States from Maine to Florida.
Dr. Michael Peirson, managing director of Cherrystone Aqua
Farms in Cheriton, Va., says farming clams can be a tricky
business for those growers dealing with the warmer waters of
the southeastern Atlantic seaboard.
One of the great challenges for anyone harvesting and
selling clams in warmer waters, says Peirson, is meeting
federal and state time-temperature matrices during the summer
months for food-safety requirements.
That means that harvested clams must be kept in waters below
45 degrees F.
"And the warmer-water clams have had a problem holding
texture," when dumped from their warmwater homes into colder
water, Peirson notes.
Keeping clams alive and at a safe temperature is a process
more complicated than storing fish fillets.
What has evolved at Cherrystone is a multi-step clam-revival
process that takes place over several hours that Peirson says
eliminates any textural problems. After harvest, the clams are
brought into a series of temperature-controlled rooms: The
first is maintained at 65 degrees, the second keeps a
temperature of about 58 degrees and then the clams move on to
the mandated 45-degree storage.
Florida's Paul Zajicek says those "textural problems" are
just "urban legend," but admits that perception has lowered the
prices of clams farmed in warmer waters.
"Florida prices are always lower-priced than the Northeast,"
says Zajicek, biological administrator for the Florida
Department of Agriculture. "I call it a bias in the marketplace
for Southern clams."
The hurricane activity raging along the southern Atlantic
coast in the past decade hasn't helped farmed-clam production
either, says Leslie Sturmer, shellfish aquaculture extension
agent at the University of Florida.
"While we are in recovery mode, it is a slow process and
some growers have dropped out of the business," Sturmer notes.
"Statewide production has dropped significantly," she says of
the Florida market.
"Pricing peaked back in 1998, and our prices are down 25
percent since that point," says Peirson, who predicts that the
average 15 cent-per-clam price will remain stable over the next
few years, but not yet recovering the peak levels prior to the
There's also a larger issue.
"There are too many people in aquaculture," Peirson
explains. "Some little guys are getting in, they are
undercutting the market and are not invested in doing the
research and development work they need to do that helps the
While research and technology are important, others say that
marketing may be the way to lift the entire clam industry,
including frozen and processed clams from both the United
States and other shores, thanks to a new nutritional focus.
Rather than play up the differences between markets, why not
play up the delicious and nutritious end results, says Guy
Simmons, VP of marketing for Seawatch International in Easton,
Md., which bills itself as one of the world's largest clam
harvesters and processors. And while clams are known for their
fried tastiness, Simmons suggests another tact.
He cites the highly successful Alaska seafood marketing
campaign as inspiration for Seawatch's recent foray into a
marketing and public relations campaign promoting clams. That
means playing up nutrition, sustainability and good taste.
Sea Watch's latest cam paign launched this year includes a
recipe book that promotes the calorie count and more healthful
aspects of cooking with clams.
The second edition of Seawatch's clam recipe book plays up
low-calorie recipes that show how low-fat clams can be without
the breading and deep fat cover: Simmons says the fat content
in a 3-ounce surf clam serving is .63 grams of fat with zero
grams of saturated fats, and 53 calories, which is low in any
"Clams are very nutritional, low in fat, high in protein and
have very few carbohydrates," Simmons says, adding the
industry's only focus on cooking clams to this point has
targeted high-fat dishes.
"We've been concentrating on frying clams and putting them
into creamy chowders," Simmons says. "As an industry, to build
more business, that has to change."
In addition to promoting the clam's nutritious aspects,
another hurdle is to convince consumers to cook the bivalve at
"The current thinking among producers of clams is that
consumers are more apt to eat clams in a restaurant than serve
them up on a dinner table," says the University of Florida's
Sturmer. "If they don't go out to eat because they are watching
their budgets, that leads to fewer clams sold all around."
Pierson says that's changing. "Much more of our sales are
going to grocery chains now, as compared to a few years ago."
He estimates nearly 60 percent of the clams harvested at
Cherrystone now go to grocery chains.
"Ten years ago we saw the entire catch go to seafood shops
and restaurants," he noted. "True, after Sept. 11 when fewer
people went out to restaurants, sales did fall off, but pricing
and sales have been stable for the last couple of years. I
think more consumers are catching on to cooking clams at
Contributing Editor Thyra Porter lives in Cape Elizabeth,