Clamming on Long Island

Dig up an organic meal with local flavor

One of the advantages to being the largest island in the United States is the accessibility to great seafood. With several hundred miles of shoreline, and plenty of protected waters on both the north and south shores, it is easy to see why Long Island was one of the major clam producers in the world. The hard clam (also called the northern quahog) used to be found in abundance all over Long Island where the water is shallow and the bottom sandy. Clams like to burrow into the sand, leaving only their “siphon” above the sand, allowing them to gather nutrients from the water, and dispose of waste. In clean water, left to their own devices, clams take about three years to get to eating size. On Long Island, littleneck clams dominate, but cherrystone, chowder, and soft-shell (steamers) varieties are also found where the intrepid clammer searches.

According to Roger Tollefsen, the director of the New York Seafood Council, in 1975 more than 675,000 bushels of hard clams were harvested from Great South Bay alone, and there were more than 8,000 licensed baymen. Since then, the commercial harvest of hard clams in New York has declined by more than 90 percent, and the number of baymen harvesting clams has decreased to several hundred. “This dramatic decline means that New York is no longer be able to export its clams,” says Tollefsen, adding, “The entire clam harvest is now consumed in New York.” Where clammers used to measure their catches by bushels and weight, the smaller amounts are now counted by number, giving an indication of the steep decline in recent harvests. Whether the decline in clam harvests is attributable to global warming, pollution, natural growth cycles, or a combination of these factors is being studied.

Tollefsen is not overly appreciative of current efforts to revitalize the industry. “Despite millions of dollars in research, reduced fishing effort, and significant progress in reaching environmental water-quality goals, the cause for the decline of the hard clam is still not clear,” he says. “Some groups maintain that ‘overfishing’ of the resource was the cause, and they have promoted sanctuaries as a way of encouraging recovery. However, baymen generally accept the fact that while the remaining shellfish do spawn, few of that next generation survive. A likely bottleneck in the reproductive cycle involves a lack of food for the baby shellfish to eat. This food deficiency seems to be tied directly to ‘successful’ efforts to reduce the nutrients that enter our waters. While too many nutrients may be harmful to a bay, too few nutrients will result in the starvation of the next generation of shellfish and finfish.”

That being said, almost no matter where you are on Long Island, you are within striking distance of a good clam. Islanders living on the South Shore are in proximity to what was once the United States’ biggest clam bed: the Great South Bay, where miles of protected inshore bays and waterways should make a perfect home for raising clams. Good clamming waters can be found from Nassau County all the way to Southampton Town. Out East, the Peconic Bay and Gardiners’s Bay systems offer a range of active clam beds. On the North Shore, the inshore areas of the Long Island Sound are also active. In my hometown, Cold Spring Harbor, you can see local clammers working their rakes in the harbor on a
daily basis.

Clammers (or “baymen,” as they are sometimes called) use a variety of methods to put clams on your table, but all of them involve extremely hard manual labor. Harvesting clams essentially involves using a hand rake and plenty of elbow grease. Depending on the depth of the water and the composition of the bottom, a bayman will employ different styles of rakes to scour the bottom in search of live clams, and bring them to the surface. Certain conditions call for tongs, which consist of two metal baskets connected to long handles, which are used to scoop up clams from softer bottom surfaces. Both raking and “tonging” clams requires a good deal of physical effort and skill—and balance, considering that the work is done from small open boats that range from 20 to 30 feet in length.

Other techniques include “donkey” raking, which is done while standing in shallow water, and “hacking,” where garden rakes are used to pry clams up from exposed mudflats at low tide. “Treading” is the method by which a clammer will use his feet to detect clams under the surface, and dig them up. This is the preferred method for the amateur clammer  to employ in the summer. (Please note that many communities on the Island require a shellfish permit to rake clams, so make sure to check with your local town hall). Like the game Othello, the successful treading technique takes a “minute to learn, but a lifetime to master.” Essentially, you walk backwards slowly through shallow water, feeling with the ball of your foot for hard objects sticking slightly above the sand. If you step on something smooth, you reach into the water, and find out whether you have a clam, a shell, a rock, or possibly a crab. Do this enough times, and you may come home with enough for dinner.

Despite the dramatic decrease in clamming on Long Island, there are still enough clams left to provide a the intrepid clam digger with a few dozen for dinner—if you can find them! If you manage to dig up a few dozen littlenecks (or, failing that, can get to the local fish market), my wife Jennifer’s linguine recipe is a great way to use them.
More Info

New York Seafood Council, nyseafood.org
Information on our State’s fisheries, hard clam and lobster industries, and where to find great seafood.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, dec.ny.gov
Recreational clam harvesters should check this site for local area closures, to make sure harvesting is safe.

Jennifer’s Linguine with White Clam Sauce

Serves  4

2 dozen fresh littleneck clams in the shell
½ cup white wine
¼ cup olive oil
6 tablespoons butter
½ small onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped basil
½ cup chopped parsley
1 pound linguine, cooked al dente
White wine or chicken broth as needed

Soak the fresh clams in a brine solution (1/3 cup salt to 1 gallon of water) for 15 minutes. Using a stiff brush, scrub the clams thoroughly. Put 1 inch of water and the wine into a kettle or pot, place the clams on a rack above the water, and bring to a boil. Steam the clams for approximately 5 to 10 minutes, until they open. Using cheesecloth, strain about a cup of the clam broth into a bowl and set aside. Cover clams and set aside.

In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter. When hot, sauté the onion and garlic until softened. Add the reserved clam broth and clams (you can add them whole, with the shell, or remove them from the shell and chop them). Simmer for about 1 minute, and then add the basil, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. If more broth is required, a small amount of white wine and/or chicken broth may be added. Serve over linguine.

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