Mercenaria mercenaria (not mercenaries)
Diane DiMassa, Ph.D.
So there I was, rake in hand, basket by my side, and then it happened. I didn’t see it at first because the sun was in my eyes. I never use sunglasses because they somehow always fall off when I look down. I hadn’t seen it coming, but I saw it then. There it was, not far from me at all. I looked at Kathy and she saw it too. We both smiled, taking mental notes of its path. We simply watched and waited. Soon, it would be ours. Some today. Some tomorrow. Maybe even some on Wednesday. No one else was around . . . at least for a while.
After it left, we made our way over to the site. Jackpot! We worked quickly and deliberately. It was almost too easy. It felt like we were cheating. But, as they say, timing is everything.
“Hello there!” a voice said. “License please.”
“Right here on my hat” I said. “You can read the number.” It may have felt like cheating, but we were perfectly legal – tools, time, location – all on the up-and-up.
“Yes we are. We always do.”
“Enjoy your weekend. Great day for it.”
“Oh, we will thanks. You too.”
That’s how it goes; that’s what happens; but there is so much more that goes on behind the scenes.
Mercenaria mercenaria, the hard clam, the northern quahog (pronounced CO-hog), aka the quahaug, is native to the eastern shores of North America. This bivalve – a mollusk that has a shell consisting of two hinged valves – has two adductor muscles that are used to control the shell, an open circulatory system, and a simple nervous system. It has no particular head, but the foot is used to dig, so that the clam can live in rather than on the sediment. Quahogs prefer salt water and survive best at a salinity of 20-25 parts per thousand. Common names for Mercenaria mercenaria, such as littlenecks or cherrystones, are dependent on size. As a rough guide, clams 1-2 inches in thickness are littlenecks, whereas clams 2-3 inches in thickness are cherrystones. Clams larger than 3 inches are referred to as chowder clams or simply quahogs. Anything smaller than 1 inch is considered a “seed clam” and should not be harvested; in fact, in most places is it illegal. Hard shell clams are filter feeders that extract nutrients from the organic matter in the surrounding water. Fortunately, all of the clam, except the shell, is edible, and people eat a lot of clams. A LOT of clams. Nature can’t keep up.
Shellfish farming on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, is big business. Grants are available for qualified individuals and regulated sites. Commercial shell-fishing throughout public waters is also big business, but this article is about recreational shell-fishing – exercise, fun, outdoors, COVID-safe, and you get dinner. So, you want some clams, do you? Here is what you’ll need to do:
1. Get a license. Like a fishing license, recreational shell-fishers need a license. A shellfish license will allow you to take limited quantities of clams, oysters, scallops, etc., but a separate license is needed if you want lobster. While lobster licenses are issued by the state, recreational shellfish licenses are town-specific, so you can only take clams from the town in which you bought the license. You can buy a license for more than one town, but once you’ve found your “honey hole,” why bother? Licenses typically last for one year. The money you pay for your license supports the local Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As I said above, nature cannot keep up with the demand for shellfish. Everybody wants to visit Cape Cod, and everybody wants to eat clams (and lobsters) when they are there. The locals want fresh seafood too! The DNR collects and cultivates clam spawn and grows the clams until they are of legal size. This takes place in local hatcheries and nurseries. Every few weeks throughout the summer, when the clams are large enough, they are taken to select locations by small boat and are then thrown overboard, to supplement what nature can provide and give clam diggers a continuous supply. The DNR publishes maps of legal areas to clam, some of which are only open part of the year, but they don’t tell you when they seed. However, if you time it right, you can watch where the boat goes and see exactly where they are dumped. Grin.
2. Get the right equipment. You will need a strong clamming rake, a clamming basket, and a measuring tool. For hard shell clamming you will want a long-handled rake; for soft shell clamming you will want a different kind of rake. The size of your metal clamming basket is 1 peck, which is about 10 quarts. Your shellfish license will allow you to take 1 level peck each week. A week is defined as starting on Sunday and ending on Saturday. You are permitted to clam on only Sundays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. You can split your take throughout those 3 days, but the total catch cannot exceed 1 level peck in a week. You will want some kind of flotation for your basket so it doesn’t sink, and a leash so that it doesn’t float away. You can buy a flotation ring or simply attach pool noodles with wire ties. A rope of any kind tied to the handle of your basket and around your waist will keep your catch close at hand. You will need a measuring tool that is essentially a small rectangular piece of sheet metal with a rectangular hole. The width of the rectangle is 1 inch – the minimum thickness of a legal clam. When you measure your clam, if it fits through the hole, then it’s too small and you should throw it back. Most people like the littlenecks the best as they are the sweetest, but if you keep one that is too small and get caught there is a hefty fine per clam. You won’t need a flashlight or a headlamp as clamming hours are from ½ hour before sunrise to sunset. The best time to go is low tide, so that it is easier to dig and you can walk out further from shore.
3. So, you’ve got your basket full of clams, now what? Clean them – inside and out. Inside? Yes, inside. It will take a few hours, but clean them. Hours? Yes, hours. Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as you think. Clams are filter feeders meaning that they siphon in water, extract nutrients and then expel the water. Sometimes sand and grit come in with the water and since you probably don’t want a sandy meal for yourself, you’ll want to get rid of that. Actually, you’ll want the clam to prepare itself to be eaten. Sounds a little funny, but that’s the way it is. All you have to do is supply clean water. Fill a bucket with seawater, put in your clams, and over the course of a few hours they will clean themselves, siphoning in the clean seawater and purging the junk. But, as the clams like to live in the sediment, you will have to scrub the outside of the shells. They can’t do that by themselves. Ha.
Once your clams are clean you can open them with a knife and have them on the half shell or you can cook them any way you please. I like to steam them open and have them over pasta with olive oil and garlic. Guess what’s for dinner tonight? Spaghetti alle vongole (Italian word for clams) and I will be happy as a clam. Buon appetito!!
Cardinal in the snow
Stan Chamberlain, BEACON Contributing Editor
The snow is deep in Barrington (Rhode Island, USA), but not too deep for the birds to come visiting.