Our 2019 U.S. Shellfish Industry Outlook

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Over the last ten years, we have seen the oyster market explode. We saw the rise of farmed oysters, the rapid openings of raw bars, and the expansion of the cocktail-size oyster market. The shellfish industry continues to surprise us with innovation and newcomers. But as it grows, it is also drawing more attention from the public sphere. As we look forward into 2019, here are the industry issues and trends we are thinking about and how they may affect the shellfish market.

Supply Trends

Climate Change

At the most recent 2019 Northeast Aquaculture Conference & Exposition, climate change was the hot topic. The ramifications of climate change for the shellfish industry are far-reaching. Ocean acidification and warming waters are affecting shellfish health and development. Shellfish are becoming more susceptible to disease and less resistant to invasive species. More frequent and extreme weather systems also increase the risk of losses. Stormwater runoff carrying excess nitrogen is causing more algal blooms harmful to shellfish.

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

Figure 2.31: Shells Dissolve in Acidified Ocean Water (Nina Bednarsek, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory )

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2019 IMPLICATIONS

Climate change is the new reality, and it will likely continue this year and into the near future. The consequences of climate change will definitely affect supply. Winter storms, wind, and other weather systems will limit farm access and production. There could be more frequent shellfish area closures due to heavy rain or algal blooms. Vibrio bacteria also thrives in warmer waters, which increases the risk of illnesses and related closures.

The warmer temperatures will likely induce shellfish to spawn sooner and potentially longer.  This will affect their quality during the warmer months. The soft shell clam fishery continues to struggle with climate change, and its decline will limit supply. Connecticut, a large producer of hard shell clams, is seeing a decline in wild set seed. This will likely put future pressure on hard shell supply as well.

Regulations affecting catch and harvest

“They have no idea about the impact on the habitat and the fishery… And they’ve made a regulation that’s going to affect people dramatically in a negative way.”

- Former New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang

Public agencies and regulators are trying to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately, these regulations can hurt the industry. This past December, the New England Fisheries Management Council closed an area in Nantucket Shoals to protect aquatic habitat. The area, however, was also vital to the surf clam industry. The closure may cause surf clam harvest and production to drop by 50%. Surf clam is a New England staple — it’s the main ingredient in New England clam chowder.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Market prices on wild shellfish will likely increase with supply constraints. Product costs on surf clams have already gone up since the closure. These costs inevitably get passed along the supply chain to the consumer. Local, state, and federal regulations affect the industry's ability to produce and sell. If new rules apply in 2019, they may pose unforeseen supply challenges.

Oyster farmers are more prepared

Despite all the doom and gloom around climate change and regulations, oyster producers are readier than ever. Growers have had to deal with the effects of climate change and red tape for more than a few years now. Oyster hatcheries now breed seed to adapt to ocean acidification. Industry changes have forced growers to find smarter approaches, and they’re now more prepared for the unexpected.

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

Preparing oysters for winter on the Standish Shore Oyster Farm

2019 IMPLICATIONS

If Mother Nature is kind, farmed supply will be relatively steady throughout the year. It's hard to predict unforeseen forces like new regulations or industry shifts. So if all stays the same, weather aside, we expect oysters to be fairly available moving through 2019.

Market Trends

Credit: Sara Norris

Credit: Sara Norris

Interests in something new

The raw bar market is starting to mature. Restaurants and diners are now looking to branch out of local varieties. Demand for Pacific oysters is growing on the East Coast. Interest in Northeast oysters is growing in Gulf regions. The Midwest is seeing a lift in shellfish growth from both coasts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

Demand for local seafood will remain strong, but this increasing interest for different and new will help farms reach markets outside their local regions. Smaller producers will have more opportunities to find their niche market. More restaurants are also adding oysters to their menus, so businesses will need to stay creative to entice their customers with their shellfish offerings.

Interests from abroad

Despite growing domestic demand, the international appetite for American shellfish is even greater. Asia and Europe are heavy seafood consumers. Domestic producers can command a higher price in these export markets. As of late, politics have definitely affected seafood exports going to China. The West Coast shellfish industry is feeling its effects. On the European front, the FDA is working with the EU to lift an import ban on American oysters.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The global political climate has been difficult to predict. If trade tariffs stay, shellfish exports, especially to China, will continue to struggle. As a result, Pacific shellfish availability could improve in the domestic market. If the FDA and the EU are able to lift the American oyster ban, this will be great news for producers. Peak shellfish consumption in the EU occurs during the winter when consumption is slow in the US.

More aquaculture, more public visibility

The growth of the shellfish industry has definitely not gone unnoticed. The oyster farm boom has drawn attention in many local communities concerned with their water access and waterfront sight lines. These NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) issues are miring the industry in lengthy and/or costly legal battles. These issues are leading to delays in permitting and sometimes, forcing farms to close up shop.

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More consumers enjoying shellfish also means increased risk of shellfish-related foodborne illnesses. These illnesses receive more media attention, which can become greater public concern. Media outlets sometimes paint the industry as careless despite the industry’s preventative efforts.

2019 IMPLICATIONS

The good news, however, is that many in the public, especially younger generations, have good faith in the industry. They understand that farmed shellfish and aquaculture are sustainable choices. Misinformation remains, but consumers are getting smarter by engaging with producers and suppliers. They are educating themselves and asking questions about their food sources.

This good faith has helped the industry weather difficult situations. There have been times past when the public has come to the industry’s defense. Our industry will continue to invest in public education and marketing with hope to continue this momentum of public support.

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Overall, we expect 2019 to be a pretty steady year. But then again, that can all change in a second based on the whims of Mother Nature. It’s part of our jobs to deal with the unexpected, so we’ll figure it out as an industry. We have seen lots of change over the years, so this year may be no different. Keeps us on our toes. In to 2019 we go.

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Recipe: Pork and Clams

Recipe: Pork and Clams

The summer outdoor raw bars are closed, and it is time to take out the stew pot. Think that a bag of clams is only good for a chowder or a fritter? Think again! This dish takes delicately cured pork belly and tops it with marinated Wellfleet clams to make a dish worthy of a chilly fall night.

Read More

Spanish Stuffed Stouts Recipe

Stout razors are the cousins of the Atlantic jackknife razor. They're a by-catch from steamer beds, so they're typically available if steamers are available. Since they live in the mud flats, we make sure to give them a good purge. Their meats are sweet, tender, and in our opinion, more delicate than jackknife razors. They're cute and stubby, so give them a try with this paella-inspired recipe!

Serves 2

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 lb purged stout razors
  • 2 large cloves garlic, sliced thin
  • 1 onion, small dice, divided
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry or white wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided ¼ cup basmati rice or other short grain white rice
  • 1 pinch saffron threads, crushed
  • 1/8 cup frozen petite peas, thawed
  • 1/8 cup dried or cooked chorizo, finely diced
  • 3 tbsp parsley, chopped
  • Lemon juice, to taste
  • Salt and chili pepper, to taste

DIRECTIONS

In a large, heavy bottom pot, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil. Add the garlic and half the onion, with a pinch of salt, and soften. Add the razor clams, coat in the oil, and then pour the sherry to steam them open. (The razor clams will not automatically open like other clams – they are par-cooked when the two siphons stick out from the side). Remove par-cooked clams from the pot and set aside to cool. Reserve the liquid from the clams and strain. This will be the liquid for cooking the rice.

Pull the clam meat from the shells, saving the shells that are still attached in a pair and not broken. Slice the clams on a bias, about a ½ inch wide. The whole clam meat may be used. Place in a cool environment so the clams do not continue to cook.

In a small sauce pot, heat the remaining olive oil. Add the remaining onion, a pinch of salt and soften. Add the rice and coat evenly with oil, warming it slightly. Add the clam liquid, stir, and if there is not enough liquid to cover the rice, add water to cover. Add the saffron and stir once more. Cook the rice until soft, overdone is preferred. Once the rice is cooked, set aside to let it cool slightly.

In a large bowl, add the rice, clams, 1 tbsp of parsley, peas, chorizo, a splash of lemon juice, and a pinch of chili powder. Stir to combine, and season to taste.

Arrange the shells on a baking sheet with crumpled foil (to make sure the shells do not roll around) and fill with the rice mixture. Broil for about three minutes, or until the tops of the rice mounds are slightly crispy and golden. Serve immediately with lemon and more parsley.

Why were steamer clams so expensive this summer?

Maine steamers are a New England staple here at Pangea, and if you've been eating or buying steamers this summer, you've probably noticed the price tag. We've heard whistles and utter shock after telling customers the market price of the day, and as of July, steamer pricing hit an all-time high, breaking the record set last year and the year before that. Steamer prices continue to rise each year, and historically (as you will see below), once they go up, they never seem to go back down. So what's driving the price on steamers? And what's going to happen next season?

Changes In the Steamer Market

The steamer market is a textbook example of Economics 101 -- prices go up because demand outpaces supply, and this season, it was no different. However, a number of key market changes put more pressure on supply than usual, which drove prices abnormally higher than expected.

Back in the day, the diggers didn’t know what you could get for a bushel a few towns over unless they drove there to find out, but now with technology, a digger can easily check from miles away and create some competition.
Photo from Bangor Daily News

Photo from Bangor Daily News

The Age of Information and Competitive Prices

Before the days of the internet and smart phones, wholesale buyers in Maine would physically display what they would pay for a bushel of steamers. Diggers would then try to find the local buyer with the highest price. If buyers from a few towns over paid better, it was hard for diggers to know unless they traveled there, but there was always the risk of wasting time and gas. These days, technology has made information exchange easy and fast. Diggers can quickly find out prices in neighboring towns, which gives them the power to choose who they supply. Local wholesalers need to be competitive to keep diggers coming, but offering these higher prices means passing the cost on through the supply chain, and ultimately to the consumer.

More Players, More Demand

The farm-to-table movement has become very popular with restaurants, but many grocery chains are also getting on board, especially with sourcing local seafood. This applies to the steamer market, too. In Maine, steamer wholesalers are not only competing with each other, but also grocery chains that have now set up buying stations to buy directly from diggers. Since the grocery chains are selling direct-to-consumer, they have more room to offer diggers better prices. Steamer production has been fairly normal, even up, in the Downeast region for the past few years, but as more buyers and bigger players enter the market increasing demand, supply just cannot keep up.

A supermarket circular for the week of August 30 to September 5, 2015

A supermarket circular for the week of August 30 to September 5, 2015

Demand Is Greatest When Supply Is Toughest

It's hard to dissociate seafood from summer. It's the season when people go on vacation or go to the beach to enjoy local seafood fare. Demand typically peaks Mid-July through August. Kids are out of summer school and families are squeezing in last-minute vacations. Unfortunately, summer is the most difficult time for shellfish. Like oysters, steamers also spawn during the warmer months. The energy expended in spawning makes the steamers weak. Yet, there are also other reasons why Maine supply is strapped during those months:

  • Areas have been dug out or closed. Towards the end of summer, many steamer beds are empty because they have already been picked through earlier in the season. Other beds may have been subject to closures in efforts to conserve dwindling clam populations.
     
  • Diggers have other jobs. Many Maine diggers are also lobstermen, so in the summer months when the weather conditions are better and the demand for lobsters is high, some diggers prefer lobstering over clamming. August is also the harvest season for wild Maine blueberries, so some diggers choose to work on blueberry farms instead. One of our suppliers estimates approximately 30% of diggers take on other jobs during the peak season.
     
  • Clams are steadily declining, especially in Midcoast Maine. In 1977, Maine landed 40 million pounds of steamers state-wide. In 2014, it was 10 million pounds. Some attribute this decline to the invasion of green crabs that feed on clam spat. Others point to high acidity in the mudflats caused by ocean acidification, which hinders clam growth. The Casco Bay and Harpswell area have been heavily affected, which "used to support more than 50 full-time harvesters," but now only "a handful of 10 to 15" part-timers.
 
Rakers earn piece rate wages, and the going rate is $2.25-$3.50 per box. A box of blueberries contains 23 pounds of fruit, and according to Rabinowitz, workers may earn $200 per day or more.
— Bangor Daily News

How will prices change going forward?

Typically, steamer prices will drop throughout the fall barring any bad weather and holiday demand spikes. We plotted historical prices over the last three years below.

maine steamer pricing trend

As you can tell, prices are pretty volatile, but fluctuations aside, one thing is clear -- steamer prices continue to peak every summer. So, if history is any indication, we can expect to see a new record price for next year's July 4th and Labor Day holidays, again.

So when is the best time to buy steamers?

"In the spring," our suppliers explain. "The clams are in good shape before they begin to spawn, and it's cheaper because there's less demand." So if you love clams, especially year-round, be a savvy buyer and get them while they're at their best AND at the best price!

Huge thanks to our Maine steamer suppliers for contributing to the research of this piece.

Manila Clams, Where Art Thou?

We talk a lot about oysters at Pangea Shellfish because we're an oyster wholesaler (duh), but we also sell a ton of clams, especially manila clams from Washington state!

Manila clams (Venerupis philippinarum) are hard shell clams that resemble littlenecks, but should never be mistaken as the same thing. They were accidentally introduced to Washington in oyster seed shipments from Japan and have thrived in Pacific Northwest waters since. Since their siphons are short, they live fairly high in the intertidal zone burying only up to 4" deep into the mud or gravel. Being so close to the surface allows easy access to food in the water, but also makes them easy targets for hand picking and raking.

Getting product from the West Coast can be logistically tricky. Our West Coast vendors harvest the shellfish, pack the shellfish so they stay fresh for the next 24 hours, drop it off at a freight forwarder, and get it on a plane direct to Boston. We then pick it up at the airport and make sure all the shellfish are strong and alive, and if not, they visit our wet storage system for a drink of water before being packed and shipped to our customers.

Female manila clam spawning in the water. Photo credit: www.fao.org.

Female manila clam spawning in the water. Photo credit: www.fao.org.

Like many other bivalves, manila clams are summer spawners because of the warmer water temperatures. When bivalves spawn, most of their energy gets channeled into reproducing, so it takes a few weeks for them to regain their strength. The meats are unaffected, but the strength of their abductor muscles to stay closed decreases. Unfortunately, harvesters are unable to detect spawning clams, so weak clams can easily end up in a shipment to Boston. They might be alive and okay when they leave Washington, but after flying and moving around for 10+ hours, many of them may decide to call it quits. We try to nurse the live ones back to health in our wet storage before shipping them to our customers, but there's nothing we can do about the dead except mourn them and apologize to our customers about an unfulfilled order.

If they do survive the flight, we recommend that our customers ice the heck out of them. Shelf life of manila clams decreases dramatically in their weakened state, so keeping them cool will help with their survival.

When are manila clams at their best?

Manila Clams will be best around winter time (like many other bivalves). We do sell them year-round, but as mentioned above, they can be weak in the warmer months. Chefs prefer them because of their long shelf life, so during the cooler months, manilas are a solid choice.

So what's a good manila clam substitute for now?

Cockles from New Zealand will be a good sub until manilas are back strong. Chefs are looking for visually stunning and interesting clams to use over New England littlenecks and cockles definitely fit that bill.

Why is there a limited availability of West Coast shellfish right now?

Besides spawning manila clams, we're also seeing limited amounts of West Coast oysters due to precautionary vibrio or biotoxin closures. For an updated closure map like the one you see below, you can visit the Washington State Department of Health site here.

Please check with us on availability of West Coast items because we gotta let Mother Nature do her thing. Besides, spawning shellfish means happy shellfish for generations to come!