Md. watermen get surge in business from New England


New England's tide of misfortune is giving a small boost to Maryland's tiny clamming industry.

Red tide, a toxic algae outbreak that makes affected clams dangerous to eat, has swept the coast from Massachusetts to Maine, forcing those who want the deep-fried soft-shells to look elsewhere for them.

Some restaurants are looking south to the Chesapeake Bay, where clams have long taken a back seat to crabs and oysters. This year, Maryland's few clammers are finding an eager market to the north that's willing to pay more than usual for their harvest.

"They want all we can get right now," said Bill Boulter, a longtime clammer who works his boat, the Emma and Sara, in the waters near Kent Island. "The market's been open for weeks, ever since the red tide hit, I guess."

From the 1960s until the early 1980s, hundreds of clam boats plied the Chesapeake and the coastal bays in what was a multimillion-dollar industry. But shellfish diseases, state regulations and increased pollution have severely cut into clamming.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources estimates that the clam harvest has dropped from 680,000 bushels at its peak in 1965 to fewer than 1,000 bushels last year. Only about 30 clammers still work the state's waters.

For those who have stuck with it, the increased northern demand is a welcome change.

Boulter, who also owns Wild Goose Seafood in Arnold, said the average clammer is working more and is catching six to 10 bushels a day. Three times a week, Boulter ships his clams to New England. He works with only a few loyal buyers and isn't taking new customers. But with the demand high, he says, he's selling everything he's catching.

"There's a little bit of money to be made right now. We're doing as well now as we've done in a good while, thank the Lord."

Clammer Mike Hamilton said he isn't taking new customers, either: "I got a couple of them from up there calling me, but I can't handle them because I've had one buyer on Cape Cod that's taking all I can get."

He said he's catching about 11 bushels a day aboard his boat, the Henchman. On Monday, he shipped 38 bushels to Massachusetts. And he's getting $100 a bushel this year - about 10 percent more than usual.

Such businesses as David's Place in Chesterfield, Conn., are happy to pay a premium for the hard-to-come-by soft-shells.

"The price was high anyway this year. All the clams are high," said David's owner Sokratis Athanasiadis.

The soft-shell clam, Mya arenaria, lives along the Atlantic Coast from Cape Hatteras to Canada, though the species can taste different from place to place because of variations in salinity.

Some New Englanders have in the past looked down at the Maryland clam because it's larger and slightly mushy. But Athanasiadis said such snobbery isn't coming into play this year - partly because of the scarcity, partly because Chesapeake clams are smaller than usual.

"When you have a thousand customers, each has a different opinion, but percentage-wise, they like the Maryland whole clams," Athanasiadis said. "They are nice and juicy."

Yesterday, the Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration closed a portion of federal waters off New Hampshire and Massachusetts to the harvesting of all shellfish except scallops because of the red tide, which federal officials say is the largest algal bloom in New England history that has warranted a public health emergency.

Red tides are an explosion of microscopic plankton that turn water a reddish brown and contaminate many filter-feeding species. Though Maryland waters often have problems with algae, the state is not susceptible to red tides.

At the Clam Castle in Madison, Conn., manager George Arena said that while some clams are still available locally from uncontaminated beds, he'd rather buy from out of state this year: "For the most part, we're getting them from Maryland."

The demand for clams is bittersweet along the Chesapeake since many watermen have gotten out of the business.

Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association and a former clammer, predicts that the bounty won't last past July because dermo - the parasite that has all but wiped out the oyster population - is fast infecting clams. State biologists say the clams are also susceptible to disseminated neoplasia, a type of blood cancer.

Some clammers say they are missing out on the uptick in business because of a 1998 law passed by the Maryland General Assembly that banned clam dredging in all Chesapeake and coastal bay grass beds. The law was passed after scientists found scarring in the aquatic grass beds from the hydraulic rigs used in clam dredging.

Since then, James Patrick Reese Jr.'s clam equipment has sat idle. The owner of Southern Connection Seafood in Crisfield said he can no longer clam in the coastal bays.

"We don't do any local clams anymore," Reese said. "I took the blow. It knocked us back a little bit. And then we found other ways to make money."

Soft-shell clams are a versatile staple in New England, equally at home fried on a roll at a roadside carry-out or dressed up on a white linen tablecloth at a fancy bistro.

But they are a taste that Marylanders have never really acquired.

That might be because soft-shells look different from hard-shells - they squirt water from their bellies and sport a tail. But the lack of appreciation here also might stem from culture and tradition, said DNR biologist Mitch Tarnowski.

In Maryland, where soft-shell clams tend to be found in deeper waters, catching them requires a specialized boat and an expensive hydraulic dredge. In New England, the clams are tidal and families can wade out to get them using rakes.

At Cantler's Riverside Inn south of Annapolis, manager Bruce Whalen said the customers who order soft-shells are often surprised at what arrives at the table.

"They think they're getting a Cherrystone clam," he said, referring to the hard-shell delicacy that's often served steamed. "Most of the people who order them like them, but there's a different taste. They can be a little dirtier."

Whalen said his customers would much rather have crabs.

Boulter agrees, though he thinks those New Englanders are onto something.

"There isn't anything any better than a soft-shell clam, battered and deep fried," he said. "I've never met a person that didn't like them."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad