NJ Clamming History
Though New Jersey’s coastlines are best known for their beaches - Wildwood days and Atlantic City nightlife - they are also home to all manner of wildlife. Fishermen have delivered tuna, monkfish, squid, crabs, clams, and oysters from dock to table for generations, even centuries.
Native American’s of the Narragansett and Lenape communities made beads of blue and white clam shells which they then used as wampum, or currency, and just as Maryland is known for blue crabs, New Jersey’s coastal estuaries were teeming with shellfish of all kinds.
Back then, finding wild clams wasn’t an issue. It required little more than a rake or a set of long-handled tongs used for lifting the clams out of the water. Even with these simple tools, a handraker could harvest ten bushels of clams in a day’s work, and the annual harvest numbered in the hundreds of thousands of bushels. The fruits of New Jersey’s waters fed the appetites of taverns in Philadelphia from the Colonial era and onward.
Up until the early 1970s, college students typically could earn enough tuition money clamming during the summer months to pay for their next year’s education, a fact that some clammers today remember fondly. In the 1950’s, however, something had started to change.
The Atlantic seaboard had become more industrial and more heavily populated and the impact of this increased activity took a toll on the watershed. The use of chemical fertilizers on farmland had become widespread. The load of available nutrients in agricultural run-off jumped, eventually contributing to the growth of algal blooms, which can throw coastal waters out of ecological balance and reduce their vitality.
These environmental pressures, coupled with the perception that the natural resources were limitless and the overfishing (and over eating) that had been its result, meant that by the 1970’s fishermen had experienced a sharp decline in the number of wild clams available. Total industry harvest was down to about 2,000 bushels per day. New Jersey’s remaining handrakers had to either innovate or find work elsewhere.
A new tradition in New Jersey clamming was born in 1973 when four of them: Rick Beckley, Rit Crema, Don Feldiesen, and Elwood Behr, traveled to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to learn cultivation techniques for raising clams of their own. Instead of foraging the already threatened wild clam populations, they started a small hatchery and became clam farmers, planting seed clams back into the bay, caring for them as they grew, and harvesting only when each crop, a generation of clams, matured.
The new clam farmers ran into problems, to be sure. When they direct seeded juvenile clams just out of the hatchery onto the bay floor, they realized that they were basically throwing snacks to the crabs and the rays. First, they tried protecting their baby clams by covering them with a layer of gravel and crushed shell. When that proved ineffective they took a cue from New Jersey’s peach and blueberry farmers, who use bird and deer netting to protect their crops from land-dwelling predation. They built screens of the same type of plastic mesh, layered it over their clams, and then added removing algae and aquatic plants from the mesh to their list of chores (as well as periodically watching their plots at night from poachers). It was more work, but since it was purely a physical deterrent, it was an effective, chemical free way of protecting their clams.
They sold their first crop in 1976, and their community has continued to learn from their innovation ever since.