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Catcher-processors anticipate a possible shift in traditional surf clam grounds

- Fiona Robinson
November 01, 2006

Name a clam and there is a market for it. Surf or sea clams go into the processing sector for chowder or clam strips. Softshells go to New England restaurants and markets for the much sought-after summertime "steamers." Most hardshells find their niche at raw bars or on the specials menu at restaurants nationwide. Here's a look at what's going on in the market for these bivalves.

Surf clams

The surf clam market went from an excess of product in 2005 to a balance between supply and demand this year. Harvests are good and yields are consistent, says Todd Blount, president of Blount Seafood in Fall River, Mass.

"Supply is in good shape, and prices have maintained or are up slightly because costs are up slightly," says Blount, referring to increased transportation costs due to the high price of fuel.

"It has been a decent year, but we're looking forward to a much better year in 2007 due to solid demand," says Blount.

Skip McAuliffe, director of national sales at Sea Watch International in Easton, Md., concurs with Blount's analysis of market conditions. Sea Watch's prices are 6 to 7 percent higher than in 2005.

"We've done our best to hold pricing, but it got to a point that with fuel and everything else, we couldn't [hold prices] any more," says McAuliffe.

Meanwhile, the catcher-processor sector is awaiting news about the 2007 surf clam resource, according to a market report in the December issue of National Fisherman . Stocks seem to be shifting farther east and north of the traditional Mid-Atlantic grounds. Scientists speculate the surf clam movement is a result of climate change and global warming, but it doesn't appear that ocean quahogs have been affected, according to the NF report.


The summer season, from the Fourth of July to Labor Day, is a critical time for Maine's softshell clam dealers, says Lori Howell at Spinney Creek Shell­fish in Eliot, Maine.

This year's softshell market was relatively calm compared to 2005, when red tides and rainfall closed the flats for several weeks in the summer.

This year, Maine shellfish officials were more selective about the areas they closed due to red tide, says Howell. For example, instead of closing an entire bay to softshell harvests, officials closed specific coves.

Depending upon the weather and tides, buyers at Bristol Seafood in Portland, Maine, sometimes look as far north as Nova Scotia to source product in the summer.

"Sometimes we have nothing," says Ray Swenton, Bristol's president.

The price for a bushel of steamers in July ran from $100 to $130, according to Urner Barry.

Prices are usually at their highest in early August and decline in the fall, says Howell.

For now, softshell buyers are keeping their fingers crossed that next year will bring few red tide and rainfall closures.

Hardshell clams

Cherrystones, littlenecks, topnecks and chowders are the common market names for the various sizes of hardshell clams.

These clams are harvested by hand with rakes and with hydraulic dredges from the Canadian Maritimes to the Gulf of Mexico. The market for littlenecks, cherrystones, topnecks and ocean quahogs has been stable for the past few years, and experts predict more of the same for the near future.

Bristol's Swenton doesn't foresee any hardshell shortages next year.

In mid-October, cherrystone prices were $30 to $35 for a 160- to 180-count bushel, up slightly from the $25 to $35 range during the same period in 2005, according to Urner Barry Publications of Toms River, N.J. Chowder prices were $16 to $18 a bushel, down from $18 to $20 during the same period in 2005. - Fiona Robinson

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