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.

Why We Place Shellfish In Our Wet Storage System

When most people walk into our shop and see our huge wet storage tanks, they assume we are holding shellfish like lobsters in a lobster tank. The fundamental concepts of both tanks may be similar, but our wet storage system does a lot more. If you haven't seen it in-person yet, watch Ben's quick overview below.

Wet storage systems can be tedious and costly to maintain. The water that filters through our wet storage system is pumped straight from the ocean in Duxbury Bay, MA and trucked to our shop. Our water gets sent to a testing lab weekly, and if anything in the system breaks, repairs can be a substantial bill. But at the end of the day, it makes sense for us because the following benefits make it worth it:

We can "Perfectly Purge" our steamers clean

On the left is a Perfectly Purged Steamer®, which is free of grit, and on the right, a rinsed steamer that shows some specks of sand.

On the left is a Perfectly Purged Steamer®, which is free of grit, and on the right, a rinsed steamer that shows some specks of sand.

As Ben mentioned in the video, our wet storage system is primarily used to purge our steamers, also known as our Perfectly Purged Steamers®. Our Maine steamers go in to our wet storage system for at least 48 hours, which gives the steamers plenty of time to purge out any sand or grit. We did a side-by-side comparison, and the grit in the rinsed Maine steamer was actually visible to the eye! Imagine all the sand that is still sitting in the clam belly, too.

We hope anyone cooking the rinsed Maine steamers will purge them properly because eating fine sand is not a pleasant dining experience. It's clear, though, that our customers prefer their steamers already purged clean since Perfectly Purged Steamers® account for 90% of our steamer sales. Customers who pay a little more for the Perfectly Purged are paying for the reassurance of completely clean steamers and time saved from purging them. 

A study published in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research titled "Does Food Quality Really Matter In Restaurants?" found that yes, of course, food quality matters, but also that "taste and presentation were the two greatest contributors to customer satisfaction and behavioral intentions." Gritty clams are a common complaint at seafood restaurants, so it might be worth your while to consider a purged option. Thank goodness we have a wet storage for that!

It extends the shelf life on weaker shellfish species like Manila Clams and Belons

We don't believe in wet storing most of our shellfish because we want to maintain each bivalve's merroir as much as possible, but sometimes, after it has been out of the water, in a cooler, and on a plane from Washington State for several hours, it needs a drink (preferably shaken, not stirred). Manila clams, in particular, are weaker bivalves that need that extra drink. Its typical shelf life is approximately 5 days from harvest, but with a dipping in our wet storage, its shelf life can extend to another 5 days after it leaves our shop.

The same applies with our Belons. Besides wet storing them, we even band them to assist their weak abductor muscle from opening, so they arrive at their destination live. Giving them that extra drink in the wet storage system also makes them slightly more tolerable to the palate, but don't worry, you're still going to get that strong coppery finish.

We do it for our customers

Wet storage systems are few and far between in Massachusetts. There are only five in the whole state, and we're proud to have one. Aside from all the work and maintenance our wet storage requires (like pumping ocean water on windy and cold winter days, see below), it allows us to provide fresher shellfish products to our customers. So, the next time you see a wet storage date on your shellfish tag, know that your shellfish has been taken care of with a few drinks on the house and that a lot of hard work has been put in to get them fresh to you.