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Feb 13, 2012 9:36 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

With Demand Mounting, Trustees Rein In Clam Harvesting

Feb 22, 2012 9:02 AM

Citing declining numbers of razor clams, a species of clam hugely popular in Asian seafood markets, the Southampton Town Trustees agreed to impose seasonal restrictions on their harvest for the first time.

Henceforth, harvesting of razor clams—technically Atlantic jackknife clams—will be allowed only between December 2 and April 14, and only on even-numbered days of those months.

The Trustees said the move to impose a razor clam season was spurred by an increase in the number of commercial shellfish harvesters who have targeted razor clams year-round as prices for the lesser-known cousins of the common hard clam skyrocketed in recent years.

“This was traditionally a wintertime fishery, but the increase in value has meant it goes all year now and the population cannot sustain that,” said Trustee Ed Warner Jr., himself a commercial shellfish harvester. “The price has quadrupled in the last year or two.”

Trustee Jon Semlear said that the price of razor clams—so dubbed because their long, narrow shells resemble a barber’s straight razor—was as high as $5.50 per pound during the Chinese New Year holiday season last month and hovers around $3 per pound the rest of the year. As recently as 10 years ago, he noted, the clams typically sold for less than $1 per pound.

Originally a delicacy desired by Italian restaurants, the demand for the tender white meat of the razor clam today is driven almost entirely by Asian markets, but some progressive New York City chefs—Harold Dieterle, of “Top Chef” fame, to name one, at his Thai restaurant Kin Shop—have also begun experimenting with them on their menus.

While razor clam stocks have grown more consistent in recent decades, for unknown reasons, the pressure of the increased harvest has meant concern for the viability of the fishery in the long term.

The pressure on Southampton Town waters has also been increased by the near disappearance of razor clams from western Moriches Bay and Great South Bay, once major producers, where annual “brown tide” algae blooms continue to stress shellfish populations. The bulk of the razor clam supply in the northeast now comes from the East End and from Rhode Island and Cape Cod.

“We’re sort of the only game in town right now,” Mr. Semlear said. “The pressure has gotten to the point where it is not sustainable.”

Unlike hard clams—the species you would order on the half-shell—which lay on top or barely buried on the sandy bottoms of local bays, razor clams typically live a foot to three feet into the sand and can quickly burrow deeper if they sense a threat invading their environs. They are harvested by a method called churning or blowing, which employs a small outboard boat motor mounted on a handheld wooden bracket, the harvester pointing the thrust of the motor’s propeller toward the bottom to blast the sand away from the clams, which are captured in a basket tethered to their churning apparatus.

This year, the Trustees had imposed the odd-numbered days closure and closed harvesting on weekends in summertime. There is no daily harvest limit for razor clams, as is typical for most other shellfish species, but harvesters are limited in the size of motor they can use to churn the clams and the size of the basket they may empty.

The Trustees board, which had at least two or three commercial fishermen among its ranks for most of the last two decades, have taken steps to ease pressure on various other shellfish species in recent years. The board pushed back the start of the harvest season for bay scallops by a month starting in 2004, limited harvest methods for oysters in Mecox Bay to handheld rakes, and lowered daily harvest limits on hard clams.

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By Carol (109), East Quogue on Feb 22, 12 8:05 PM
size limit of 5 inches? considering they only grow to a max of about 6 and a half inches, that is unreasonable. as for one bushel a day- that is ridiculous-no commercial fisherman is going to go out for one bushel. why dont you have a hamburger and dont worry about the clams.
By CaptainSig (716), Dutch Harbor on Feb 25, 12 6:43 AM
Has anyone asked what kind of damage is done to the bay by churning up three feet of sand and mud? Has there been any studies as to whether it is damaging or helpful?
By fish sticks (53), hampton bays on Feb 23, 12 5:57 AM
You need a study? Really? Clearly power digging harms eel grass beds and kicks up silt and toxins.
By BIGjimbo12 (201), East Quogue on Feb 23, 12 8:17 PM
1 member liked this comment
I always thought churning was illegal
By patrickstar (67), hampton bays on Feb 23, 12 6:45 AM
I'm a fan of quotas and putting restrictions on fishing but what the h*ll did the Trustees base this decision on? There's no scientific study nor are they planning to undertake one - they picked arbitrary dates and "even numbered days" because it makes them feel better? I don't understand this one at all.
By Nature (2966), Hampton Bays on Feb 24, 12 9:43 AM
Good point. How do we know what the shellfish population can stand without some sort of study?
By Wagoneer (28), Southampton on Feb 24, 12 3:13 PM
yes very good- lets spend several thousand dollars and a few years on ANOTHER "study", instead of using common sense and acting in a timely manner. by the time you finish your studies and debates there wont be a clam left in the bay.

it seems to me that whatever the trustees do is wrong to some people- conduct research and study a problem and they are accused of not doing anything. take proactive, timely steps to protect a resource, and they are accused of active rashly and arbitrarily. ...more
By CaptainSig (716), Dutch Harbor on Feb 25, 12 6:51 AM
My dear Captain Sig. I did not mean one bushel but a limit of the amount of bushels per day. Razors do grow bigger than 6 and a half inches if left alone. Carol
By Carol (109), East Quogue on Feb 26, 12 6:42 PM
Did the trustees give any thought to the markets that some baymen have developed over many years? The buyers will go to a source that can produce consistant numbers forthem12monthsof theyear. This may have unintended consequences.
By bigfresh (4666), north sea on Feb 27, 12 1:17 AM
How about spreading the word that clams are gross bottom dwellers that feast on the excrement of mobile sea life? Don't hate the playas, hate the game.
By Toucan Sam (7), Southampton on Feb 27, 12 12:00 PM