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.

Where do Belon Oysters come from and are they that rare?

belon oyster blog

If you're looking for the short answers to those questions, it's not that straightforward. But in a nutshell, Belons are from France, and no, they are not rare... at least not anymore. With that said, Belons deserve to be understood considering their complex history and taste. So this week, we're going to take a deeper look at this interesting oyster.


An Introduction to the American Belon Oyster

river belon in france

There are multiple names for the Belon -- European Flat, Harpswell Flat, etc., but it's scientific name is Ostrea Edulis. The oyster is of a different species than its North American counterparts (Crassostrea virginica and Crassostrea gigas) and originates from Europe, hence the name European Flat. A true Belon is only harvested from the Belon River in France.

In the 1950's, scientists transplanted Belon oyster seed from the Netherlands to Maine in hopes of cultivating them in North America as an alternative source. They eventually abandoned their efforts because they saw no short-term results, but ten years later, the oysters began to grow wildly in various beds along the Maine coast. It was not until the 1980's when significant numbers started to show. Today, Belons can be found in Maine's rivers and islands such as Casco Bay and the Damariscotta River.

So are Belon Oysters rare?

Many oyster sources claim that Belons are rare oysters, supposedly an estimated 5,000 are harvested a year. Well, that was 20 years ago, and I guess no one bothered to give an update. Today, Pangea can move up to 10,000 Belons a week, and our oystermen in Maine can harvest an average of 5,000 a day! Harvest season is limited to mid-September through mid-June when they're best. During the summer, the oysters spawn and start re-populating the coastal rocks that they thrive on.

oyster diving

According to Steve Bowman from Browne Trading in Maine, Belon supply was never really consistent in the past because there wasn't really a demand for them, and it was difficult getting oystermen to dive for them consistently, especially in winter. Belons are pretty delicate oysters, so it's not preferable to drag or rake them. They should be hand picked underwater. As oyster demand grew in areas like fine dining, the Belon got more attention and restaurant requests, which eventually motivated more oystermen to harvest these oysters. Steve says that despite the proximity of supply, local Mainers still prefer Eastern oysters like Pemaquids over Belons.

Distributing Belons is a full-time job in and of itself

Belons require a lot of extra TLC because they are so delicate. At Pangea, we have finally mastered the process of distributing Belons, but it is still a lot of work. Belons are a weaker species than its American cousins. For them to stay alive out of the water, they need extra help from rubber bands to keep their shells closed and their liquor from leaking out. 

Each Belon needs its own rubber band. The videos are playing at 8x the original speed. Now imagine rubber banding more than 8,000 oysters a week! That's a lot of time and hand aching work!

And because the oysters are rather flat, they definitely have to be packed cup side down so there's no risk of them losing their liquor, which means we hand pack each box of oysters we ship.

Never had a belon before?

Don't worry, you're not the only one. Many people don't know that they are widely available, so now you can go seek them out! To be completely honest, you'll either love it and swallow it, or hate it and spit it out. What's truly rare is someone who doesn't feel one way or another. Make sure you throw all your expectations of what an oyster should taste like out the window. Belons have a mineral quality (some describe as sucking on a copper penny) that has notes of hazelnut. You may taste something completely different, but it won't be like any other oyster you've tasted before.

If you're looking for something exciting this fall or getting your customers to try new things, Belons will definitely be a treat. Even if they're not as popular as your Wellfleets, you'll get a few "oohlala"s and "hip hip hooorays" from your die hard oyster geeks.

Click here for Belon Oysterology.

Correction: October 8, 2014
An earlier version of this post misstated that Belons cannot be raked. Oystermen do drag and rake for Belons, but diving is the preferred harvest method.

Hollander & De Koning Mussels Are Back Strong

THIS WEEK ONLY STARTING 8/11 THROUGH 8/15 -- FOR EVERY 5 BAGS OF H&D MUSSELS, GET 1 FREE

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: AUGUST 11, 2014
Fiona de Koning
Acadia Aqua Farms

Down on the farm, mussels back in top form!

BAR HARBOR, ME: It has been tough up here on the coast of Maine. The winter was “double strength brutal” according to our boat captain and seasoned farmer, Theo de Koning. Then there followed an intensive spawn period that went on much longer than we have seen on this side of the Atlantic.

The water temperature is lower this summer than the previous year. This has resulted in a nice, delicate consistency, and full flavor in the new meats of these summer mussels.

Mussels are on our menu every week. You can always trust a farmer who enjoys their own produce, and they are “wicked good” right now! In summertime, we love to eat mussels steamed with wine, garlic, black pepper and a few chopped vegetables (leeks, onion, red and green peppers and a bay leaf), which is best served with nice crunchy bread.

There are so many fun ways to serve mussels and we use them in many recipes, but in summertime, it is good to keep it simple, to enjoy these succulent shellfish while still having time for all the summer activities on the coast!

About Acadia Aqua Farms: Acadia Aqua Farm is a family-owned Maine company based in Bar Harbor. It is currently the largest shellfish leaseholder in the State of Maine. The owner, Theo de Koning, is a fifth generation Dutch mussel farmer and has been farming for more than twenty years. For more information about the de Konings and their mussels, please visit http://www.acadia-aquafarms.com.

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