STATE OF NEW YORK
Bureau of Marine Fisheries
Alfred Tucker Superintendent
ORIGINS, DEVELOPMENT AND STATUS
SURF CLAM INDUSTRY
1943 – 45
James R. Westman,
Senior Aquatic Biologist (Marine)
ON THE ORIGINS, DEVELOPMENT AND STATUS OF THE SURF CLAM INDUSTRY
James R. Westman
Senior Aquatic Biologist (Marine)
The surf clam industry belongs in that category of enterprises which originated under the stimulus of war-time demand. While it becomes increasingly evident that surf clams would have been a successful food product in the years prior to the war, it remained for the increased war-time demand for shellfish and other food products to lessen the sense of business risk to a point where the necessary commercial research and subsequent large scale productions were initiated. Thus within the short span of three years (1943-1946) the production and processing of surf clams as a food item has reached the rather astonishing volume of more that 24,000,000 lbs. of shell stock
annually, or nearly 4,000,000 lbs. of processed clam meats. And there is no indication that the demand for the product will decrease.
In view of this rapid development and continued post-was demand, one can justifiably question why this industry was not developed in pre-war years. The skimmer clam, however, was not suited to the conventional methods of washing and processing generally employed with other shellfish, and modified methods had to be developed through commercial research. This does not mean that persons who were familiar with the surf clam resource did not, for several years, seek to develop the mollusk into a food item, but rather that an equal, or sufficient enthusiasm was never evident on the part of the cannery interests. The details in the eventual development of the surf clam industry are of interest; -
The Surf Clam as a Bait Industry
For many years prior to 1943, there was a moderate production of surf clams as bait for commercial and sports fishing boats in both Long Island and New Jersey – the latter region entering into moderate scale production during the middle or late thirties. To a much lesser extent, surf clams were also used as food but chiefly, it seems, by summer residents along the shore-front and those other persons who happened to be aware of the skimmer clam’s excellent table qualities when correctly prepared. Production at that time was accomplished through power dredging augmented by hand tonging --- the latter in the surf areas along the shore and also in the vicinity of Three Mile Harbor and Greenport. The centers of power dredging on Long Island, originated in Sheepshead Bay and were soon located in the regions of Rockaway and Jones Inlets where several dredgers were active. Total production of surf clams for bait during the late twenties and in the thirties was perhaps 30,000 bushels annually, with probably 90% accounted for by power dredging. Of passing interest is the consumption of skimmers as bait on the sports fishing boats of Montauk’s Railroad Dock during 1938.
April………………………….7.5 bushels May………………………..120.5 June………………………..307.0
July………………………..766.5 August…………………….895.5 September………………...463.5 October…………………...138.0
For many years the surf clams, sold in the Montauk area, were supplied by dredge boats from the Jones Beach – Rockaway region, but in later years tonging near Promised Land supplied a large part of the clams used in the Montauk area. Prices for skimmer clams were generally form 0.75 to $1.50 per bushel, wholesale.
Method of Dredging Used by the Bait Industry
The dredges used were usually from 18” to 28” in width with a knife – rather than teeth – in front of the flat, bar scoop which sloped upward and backward toward the bag. The depth of the blade was from 6.5” to 9”. The so-called “Sheepshead Bay” dredge had a more or less straight, leading edge to the knife and frequently was adjustable to the desired depth. These dredges were towed by a rope, usually fastened to a special stanchion, and were hauled in either by the rope and winch (through a pulley from the boom) or by additional steel cable and winch. The vessels engaged were of the conventional, small dragger type.
Early Attempts toward the Development of a Food Industry
For many years, one of the chief producers of surf clams made repeated efforts to interest commercial canners in developing the mollusk as a food product. These efforts were augmented by those of Mr. Alfred Tucker (at that time Manager of the Long Island
Fishermen’s Association) toward the same ends. Despite these efforts, however, and the shipment of many samples to cannery interest, enthusiasm never appeared to be more that lukewarm; and what interest did exist seemed to cool quickly when the problem of sand removal from the clam was encountered; conventional methods were inadequate for the purpose. One firm did progress to pilot operations of several thousand bushels, but discontinued due to the problem of sand removal. Among the firms contacted were Abt & Lewis of New York, Campbell Soup Co., and the Beechnut Canning Co. Attempts were also made to interest bait dealers in shucked clams – among whom were Bussalachi Bros. and the John Nagle Co. both of Boston, Mass. All these attempts were fruitless.
First Successful Steps
Early in 1943, the Snow Canning Co. Inc. of Pine Point, Maine, was casting about for a supply of shellfish which might be successfully produced and canned in mass volume. One of their letters of inquiry came into the hands of Mr. Frank Anderson, then of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who in turn referred it to Mr. Tucker. The Hogstrom Bros. of Freeport, were promptly contacted and a request for samples was soon forthcoming from the Snow Canning Co. Due to the many disappointments which had been experienced from sending free samples of surf clams to various parts of the country, the Hogstrom Bros. arranged for a shipment of pilot size to the Snow Co. and this was followed, soon afterwards, by an order of 140 bushels per day. It was not long, however, before this demand began steadily to increase, and it continued to do so until, at times, 1500 bushels per day were received, either in the shell or in shucked form. Before the end of 1943, other business establishments on Long Island had become interested in the surf clam as a food item and had begun to take the steps necessary for establishing production and processing.
In the beginning the volume of clams to be processed was, as we have seen, quite small. Accordingly, the equipment and methods used in processing were temporarily makeshift in character, although efficient in principle. First the clams were shucked at benches by regular hand shucking. The clam meats were then placed in a wire cylinder which was revolved by hand while streams of water under pressure were played on the clam meats. After this washing, the clams were “squeezed” (eviscerated) by hand and the clam meats packed into iced containers for shipment.
When received at the cannery, the clams were washed again, in a conventional type of “blower,” before further processing. With the rapidly increasing demand, this small shucking plant was soon abandoned for a larger, more adequate establishment, with the forming of the Long Island Sea Clam Co. of Point Lookout – a merger of Hogstrom Brothers and the Bright Eye Fish Co. Improved methods were devised for processing and waste disposal and a new system of washing installed. After the clams had been shucked, they were pre-washed by paddling in large perforated tubs containing running water, and then washed again in a conventional type of “blower.” After these washings the clam meats were placed upon monel metal tables, where the viscera were removed by hand, and then packed in iced containers for shipment. Other shucking establishments, which soon entered the industry, either dispensed with the pre-wash or accomplished it by moving the clams along a perforated riffleboard under streams of water. In these establishments, the shuckers also removed the viscera at the time the clams were shucked. The final product, as sold, was of several types: chilled or frozen-minced clams; canned-minced clams; chilled or frozen whole-clam meats; and new England type clam chowder.
Additional Enterprises and Production
By early 1944, the number of establishments producing and processing the surf clam as a food item had increased to three, with the two later enterprises basing their operations, at first, upon the demand for the chilled or frozen products. It is the understanding of the writer that a large proportion of these products went, by direct order, to the Armed Services. By the end of 1944, the Bluepoints Co. had erected a small cannery at their West Sayville plant and had commenced to can minced clams. Their shucking plant at East Marion was also in operation. In addition, the Woodcleft Fish Co. had established a shucking plant at Greenport and clam meats from this plant soon began to be used for canning by New England firms. It is interesting to note that 1943 also witnessed the establishment of the Ocean Quahog fishery of Rhode Island and that this shellfish was later blended with skimmer clams by one of the companies. To what extent this is now practiced is not known by the writer.
Methods of Harvesting
The establishment of the food industry on skimmers did not, for a long time, change the basic principle of gear and operation, although many small craft – including “skiffs” and converted “party” boats – entered the fishery by using small dredges which could be both towed and hauled in over the stern with the same rope by means of a boom or “A” beam, and a winch “gypsy.” The design of some dredges later became slightly modified; the knife was rounded so that the leading edge became an arc, and the bars were given a more gentle slope. Some operators began to experiment with sleds under the bag, in an attempt to clear the mud away from the clams more rapidly. The customary practice was to dredge for about one-half hour before lifting – or for less time if the bag became full of clams and the dredge “pulled out” of the bottom. When the bag had been lifted out of the water and over or into the boat by means of the pulley and boom (or “A” beam), the “pucker” string on the bag was pulled and the clams allowed to spill out onto the deck. Some of the smaller boats, i.e. skiffs and converted party boats, had tables constructed in the stern, and the clams spilled out onto this table.
The dredge was then lowered to the bottom for another drag, and while this was being made, the pile of clams on deck was sorted to remove breakage (which generally ran about 18%). Unbroken clams were put into standard, wire fish baskets for measuring and when the “bushel” became well rounded the clams were dumped into a bag.
The bags were then piled on the deck, out of the way of subsequent operations, and the deck cleaned of broken clams, trash, mud, etc. The quantity of clams taken in a single drag varied, of course, with the size of the boat and dredge. In the beginning, larger-sized boats were not content with a locality which did not produce at least 10 bushels of clams in a half-hour drag. But as localities of unusual densities became scarcer, this quantity dropped to as low as 6 bushels.
The speed of dredging was governed by two factors; (1) breakage of clams; and (2) cut “tongues” (feet). These factors, in turn, were determined in part by the character of the bottom and the orientation of the clams. Stability of speed was also influenced by weather conditions and ground swell. In the beginning, speed was usually not more that 75 feet per half-hour, but this later increased to as much as 150 feet, or more, under the desire to maintain production and with the assistance of slightly improved dredge design. The use of buoys to mark spots of concentration was another innovation found to be necessary in order to maintain production. Radical changes in dredge design and method of harvesting did not occur until late in 1945. A description of these changes will be included in a later section.
Nature and Source of Supply
When the skimmer was first established as a food industry, nearly all the harvesting was done from beds just off Jones Inlet (inside a two-mile radius from S.E. to S.W.). As more boats entered the fishery, however, more areas were harvested until, by late summer of 1945, the skimmer “area” extended from East Rockaway Inlet to Gilgo, a distance of some 20 miles. Another area was also discovered, late in 1945, in the vicinity of Fire Island Inlet, and several vessels began harvesting clams in that region. By the end of 1945 the total number of boats engaged in the fishery had increased from the original four or five to more than 50.
Clams in this so-called skimmer “area” occur in various degrees of concentration, with the higher densities forming “streaks” or “ridges,” in a sort of mosaic. It is these “streaks” which are buoyed by individual boats in order that they may more effectively work these higher concentrations. The sizes of these “streaks” vary greatly; from only a few feet in extent to several hundreds of feet in length and breadth. Most of the individual streaks studied by the writer had clams of fairly uniform size; the range was frequently less than one inch, with as many as 80% of the clams falling within a half-inch range. Based on the assumption that shell “ridges” or “checks” are representative of age,
the streaks were heavily dominated by either one or two year-classes. The density of the clams on these streaks obviously is quite heavy, and in many instances they must be crowded together like cobblestones.
Early in 1945, the industry standardized upon 4 1/16th inches, measured on the longest axis, as the minimum desired length for skimmers; and this size was written into the State conservation Law in May of that same year.
Based upon the aforementioned “ridge” counts on shells, the growth rate of skimmers is variable; a single age class of clams from a particular streak usually fell into a “normal curve”, but significant differences in size were sometimes noted between similar age classes of adjacent streaks. Moreover, in the areas east of Jones Inlet the clams examined by the writer showed less variation in growth rate than those west of the inlet. In the former locality the clams examined suggested that a large proportion of the “five-year olds” has reached 4 1/16th inches in length and that nearly all of the “six-year” group had attained this legal size; while west of Jones Inlet, streaks of “runts” were sometimes encountered which had not attained 3 ½ in “five years” of growth. During the summer of 1945 the writer “tagged” a number of clams by marking the shells with red dye in order, if possible, to check upon the growth rate and to determine survival of under-sized clams returned to the water. Recoveries of some of these marked clams’ suggested that the “ridge” counts were of significance and that mortality among the returned clams was about equal to the proportion of severely cut “tongue” (feet).
Under experimental conditions, skimmer clams exhibit considerable activity and can dig themselves down into previously undisturbed hard sand in a matter of a minute or so. Under these experimental conditions, skimmers would also fail to retract their feet unless rather violently disturbed. Moderate, poking often merely prompted them to dig deeper into the sand. The siphon is phototropic and the clam would often retreat its siphon below the surface of the sand when a shadow fell across it.
Clams in the surf regions are more deeply embedded at certain times than at others and persons who have tonged for skimmer report that this is particularly correlated with tidal conditions. It is thus suggested that both tidal and weather conditions may account for the apparent changes in the availability of clams on a particular streak. At no time has the writer encountered any evidence which would indicate that the skimmer clam undergoes hibernation during the winter months, although it seems possible that individuals or groups might hibernate for short periods from time to time. As yet, there is also no evidence which suggests any extensive migration of clam groups, although the skimmer is quite capable of moving in horizontal directions.
The exact period of spawning has not as yet been determined. The gonads begin to undergo superficially perceptible enlargement during mid-winter, and at the time when the writer first began to study the surf clam (May 1945) the gonads appeared to be well developed with approximately to be well developed with approximately half the “males” containing active sperm. This condition persisted until late July, when gonads suddenly began to disappear from superficial inspections.
Data on the length-weight relationships of skimmers will not be included in the present report. It should be stated in passing, however, that these relationships vary seasonally, with the result that significant changes in the yields of “meats” per bushel occur during the year.
The production of skimmer clams rapidly increased from the original volume of 140 bushels per day, to a yearly total of more than 300,000 bushels during 1945, an increase of more than ninefold. The number of boats in the fishery also gradually increased until by the end of 1945 more than 50 were actively engaged. The total production by month, during that year, is of significance when the catch-per-unit-of-effort (since the establishment of the industry) is considered. Following is the total catch of skimmers by the month, during
January / 12,172 bushels February / 19,056 bushels March / 30,034 bushels April / 25,699 bushels
May/ 26,187 bushels June / 32,654 bushels July / 26,151 bushels August / 31,708 bushels
September/ 29,912 bushels October / 32,847 bushels November/ 20,559 bushels December/ 13,633 bushels
Total for year: 300,612 bushels
The number of boats in the fishery increased by about 20% during 1945, with the result that a considerably greater fishing effort was being exerted by the end of that year. In addition to the larger number of boats, the effort per day became longer, towing speeds increased, and more “short” clams were taken in an effort to maintain or increase production. Thus, while the average catch-per-trip held up rather well until October, the subsequent decline caused a considerable discouragement when a ready solution was not apparent to most of the boat and plant operators. The catch per trip, by half-month averages, for each of the seven boats has been plotted on the accompanying chart. Five of these boats are of the large or large-medium type and two are “skiffs”. They all belong to the class of the more efficient operators and the catches represent clams of 4 1/6th inches in length or larger. A decline in the catch-per-effort is noticeable from October to the end of the year.
Problems Encountered During 1945
In addition to the biological problems mentioned earlier, two major -- and several minor – problems were encountered during 1945. The two major ones were: first, cut “tongues” (feet) with the consequent loss in weight yields and influence on high “scores” and spoilage
second, a problem of declining abundance, with the increasing scarcity of densely populated streaks and the consequent crowding of boats on limited areas.
Cut Feet: As has been previously mentioned, cut feet are chiefly self-inflicted by the clam as a result of certain physical stimuli and conditions of capture.
The mollusk frequently clamps shut on its foot, and the edges of the shell, together with the retractive
pull on the foot, cause injuries of varying severity. If the foot is simply “nipped off” at the tip, the injury is not a serious problem. However, the foot may be cut and ripped off as far back as the pedal ganglion, and whenever the injury even approaches this severity, the clam soon gapes open. During warm weather, these “gapers” soon die, with consequent spoilage. The incidence of severely cut feet varied, during 1945, with the speed of dredging and type of ocean bottom. Indeed, this incidence of injury varied all the way from 5% to a prohibitive 60%. A haphazard sampling of the catch of one fleet during July, 1945, showed an approximate 12% overall incidence of severely cut feet. The loss in yield of meat by cut feet can obviously be formidable, not to mention the consequent spoilage during the warmer seasons.
Decline in Abundance: --- In order fully to understand the decline in abundance which occurred during 1945, it must be realized that in this case (as in most other cases of its kind) the degree of abundance was measured by -- and was completely related to -- a particular type of gear and the method of its use. Thus only those “streaks” with a density of clams sufficient to yield “so many” bushels of clams per drag by the particular gear and method were considered, by nearly all of the producers, as an index of abundance. And it should be mentioned here that there was no reason to believe that these “streaks” of unusually high densities were representative of the surf clam resource as a whole. Nevertheless, it is not surprising that the increasing scarcity of desirable “streaks” soon caused an extreme anxiety on the part of almost all of the producers by the autumn of 1945. The crowding of boats on particular spots had become severe and there was an increased enforcement problem with clams of sub-legal size. Among the attempts to cope with this problem was an organized and systematic search for new streaks which was conducted by 6 boats, from two of the three fleets, on September 22.
While this search was successful in locating some new streaks of skimmers, the operation was not repeated due to the inability of securing the necessary 100% cooperation from the entire fleet. Another attempt to deal with the problem of overcrowded conditions was the meeting of boatmen to discuss a code of ethics, or gentlemen’s agreement, to govern conduct in the taking of skimmers. Two such meetings were held and a code of ethics drawn up. Along with these meetings of the boatmen, an agreement was reached among the purchasers of skimmers, which supported the boatmen’s actions and largely solved the perplexing enforcement problem of undersized clams. It so happened, however, that by the time these agreements would have gone into effective operation, a solution to the entire problem had been achieved by other and much more efficient means.
Solution of the Problems of Cut Feet, Abundance, etc.
The nature of the problem of abundance was clearly understood by a few in the surf clam industry, and this resulted (during the autumn of 1945) in a careful research into the efficiency of gear and method, since it was realized that this efficiency was not only relative to the problem of abundance, but also to the problem of cut “tongues”.
In studying the problem, several puzzling factors were apparent; first, the production of a twenty-minute drag was seldom double that of a ten-minute drag; second, while the dredging speeds were extremely slow – perhaps three or four feet per minute --an increase to only six or seven feet per minute might cause a severe incidence of cut feet; third, the feet of the clams would sometimes be “double-cut” i.e., a piece off the tip and another cut further back, suggesting that the clam had clamped down on its foot twice during capture; fourth, dredges sometimes pulled out of the bottom, from time to time during a drag, without the bag being full; fifth, the netting of the bags often frayed in a region about one-third of the was back from the forward end; and sixth, there was an obvious lack of any strong current of water through the bag, due to the very slow speed of dredging.
Added to these facts, was the most apparent one of all, namely; the dredges in use were only satisfactorily effective on streaks of unusual density. In other words, if a satisfactory “pay-load” was to be realized, the dredge had to operate in a sufficiently soft bottom and in a density of clams similar, probably to that of cobblestones.
All these facts suggested that an entirely different principle of dredging should, if possible, be employed. Experiments with the hydraulic principle were therefore planned and these received great impetus by visual observations on the operation of the conventional type dredge during special experiments conducted in shallow water. These observations quickly showed, as might have been expected that the conventional type of dredge piled up the sand badly and soon choked the bag in its forward region. The appearance of the bag suggested a snake which had just ingested a particularly large morsel and was having difficulty in passing it backward to the stomach. Experiments with the hydraulic principle took the form of pumps, hoselines, headpipes and jets, connected with the dredges.
Numerous experiments with types and orientation of jets were made, together with sizes and types of hoses, pumps etc. By the end of the year the major difficulties had been overcome, and many boats began to install pumps, hose, etc. as a part of their regular equipment. The most popular type of gear was a 2 ½ inch canvas “fire” hose and a head pipe with three jets. An additional improvement which was a considerable departure from the conventional type of dredge was the modification of the bars forming the “scoop”. It was discovered that streamlining the contour of the bars by sloping them backward and upward to a transverse, convex arc – and thus increasing the straining capacity of the bars – improved the efficiency of the dredge. This modification however has not been widely adopted.
As might be expected, the development of this method of dredging was soon universally adopted when the greatly improved results were witnessed. At the present time nearly all the boats in the fishery use this method of dredging – except, of course, many of the skiffs and other smaller craft.
Results of Hydraulic Dredging
The use of hydraulic dredges had several important results; breakage and cut “tongues” were reduced to a negligible factor; production per unit-of-effort soared to approximately 100 bushels per trip
the area covered by the dredge in a single drag could be doubled or tripled – thus making it possible to utilize streaks of far less density; and regions of hard bottom, previously impractical for dredging, became available.
The use of pumps, however posed a problem of increased sand removal, since greater quantities of sand were found within the shells. This problem has not yet been solved to complete satisfaction. Another result of hydraulic dredging has been the greatly increased utilization of clam beds very close to the beach, since it has been found that the pumping method, as now used, is more applicable to shallow water than to depths of five or more fathoms, although it is successfully used at these greater depths.
Minor Problems of 1945
Among the minor problems encountered during 1945, three perhaps should be mentioned; (1) whether or not a surf clam resource of economic magnitude existed in Long Island Sound; (2) possible utilization of clam viscera, and (3) the heating and consequent decomposition of the shipping bags.
Through the cooperation of one of the dragger operators of Port Jefferson, and one of the purchasers of surf clams at Freeport, several exploratory trips were made, during the autumn of 1945, in the waters near Port Jefferson and Mt. Sinai. Surf clams were found during these trips, but all of them were small, of mixed sizes, and never in any quantity approaching an economic density. In connection with clam viscera, two possible uses were explored, and full reports from these experiments are not yet at hand. The heating and decomposition of bags is a nuisance encountered during hot weather and is due to bacterial action. Two methods were found to overcome this; rinsing the bags and placing then out flat in the sun; and rinsing, followed by soaking in a mild solution of chlorine powder. The first method is the one most generally used if any treatment at all is given.
The Conservation Problem
The term “conservation”, like the word “science”, eludes a standard-or exact-definition; but it seems, nevertheless to convey a satisfactory meaning to most everyone. In the present instance “conservation” means the management of a resource so that the optimum economic yield can be “perpetually” sustained. Just how this can best be accomplished in the case of the surf clam resource is a matter still open to some controversy. There are, however, certain facts which must be considered.
1. The extent of abundance, as measured by the present methods of harvesting, is not known.
2. Lack of suitable inlets east of Fire Island Inlet discourages exploration in the waters adjacent to the eastern section of the Island, and concentrates effort into Jones Inlet-Gilgo region.
3. The efficiency of the medium and large-size boats was suddenly doubled, not long ago, and it seems possible that this efficiency could be increased again if sufficiently desired. This would again change the concept of abundance as now measured.
4. There appears to be a continued, and quite rugged, demand for skimmer clams, which suggests that additional firms may wish to enter the industry in the future.
5. It seems apparent that approximately six years, or more, is required by the skimmer to reach satisfactorily economic size.
6. It has been found that the establishment of legal size limits is not practical due to a mortality-percentage of clams returned to the water, and to the reduced concentrations or densities of streaks which have once been worked and “filtered”.
7. During the hot weather months, high “scores” have posed a sanitation problem.
This information suggests that closed areas and/or a limitation of effort are the principles of conservation most applicable at the present time. Limitations of a ceiling alone, on a number of units would not appear to be adequate, since it has already been noted that the efficiency of gear has been recently doubled and can probably be further increased. It would appear, therefore, that some restriction of areas, for particular periods of time, must be included in any practical and effective management of the resource. It also seems apparent that more information is needed on the spawning and the early life history of the surf clam. An attempt to gain such information is programmed for the immediate future.
The working depth of the knife is also important in the problem of breakage. Six inches seems to be the minimum if breakage is not to be formidable. It has now become fairly well established that cut “tongues” and some of the breakage, is self-inflicted by the clam, although in response to physical stimuli and conditions which can be largely eliminated. This will be discussed in later pages.
It is now the practice to place a quota of 100 bushels more or less, on each trip, with the larger boats often catching this quantity in a few hours operation.
In this connection, it is interesting to note that streaks formerly worked and abandoned under the old method are now successfully harvested by the hydraulic method.