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.

Our 2015 Outlook For Oysters

The oyster experienced a renaissance in 2014. So what's in store for 2015?

As we look back on 2014, the oyster had a great year. Oysters received so much press and attention that it even got a shout out on the home page of the New York Times, accompanied with a video appropriately titled "Oysters Make a Comeback." Entering 2015, there is no doubt that this oyster craze will continue. Numerous oyster bars are slated for 2015 openings and more consumers are having oysters for the first time. They say the best way to predict the future is to look at the past, so join us as we recap the significant oyster trends in 2014 and what it means for 2015.

DEMAND TRENDS

1. The Emergence of Oyster Farms and Branding

There are many reasons the oyster market is booming, but one of the primary reasons is the growth of oyster farms and brands along the East Coast. According to Bob from East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, production has doubled over the last five years, and he now estimates there are over 400 niche oyster brands on the East Coast alone. "It's like wine," Bob says. "There are a ton of brands and choices, and each one is unique."

Like terroir, oysters have their merroir, and this is a huge draw for chefs. The farm-to-table movement has created an excitement around understanding where and how ingredients are sourced, and this is no exception for oysters. Private labeling and exclusive distribution of brands have allowed chefs, restaurants, and distributors to tell the oyster story that is unique to them. And consumers love it, so much so that it has sparked a market for oyster farm tourism and even an app to geolocate specific oysters.

2015 IMPLICATIONS

Expect to see more farms and brands appear on the market, but also a shift towards vertical integration through exclusive distribution or private labeling as players strive to differentiate themselves and capture greater market share from loyal consumers. There are oyster farms that are already vertically integrated where the farm directly supplies its own branded restaurants (e.g. Island Creek Oysters and Matunuck Oysters) and farms who grow the same oyster with multiple names for distributors or restaurants to claim exclusive distribution rights. More farms are now marketing directly to consumers to build brand loyalty and generate demand whether by shipping product direct-to-consumer or offering consumer experiences such as tours.

2. Rise In Industry Profits Draws Shady Business

As with any industry, the potential for sales and profits will draw those looking for easy money to make bad decisions. In 2014, there were some high profile cases of oyster fraud, theft, and poaching that drew a decent amount of attention from the press and the respective local communities.

2015 IMPLICATIONS

Seafood fraud has been a common industry problem that extends beyond oysters. However, as more consumers and restaurants become more engaged with their food and sourcing, traceability will become a higher priority. The Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference is working on a more robust traceability plan to be released in the near future. The Vibrio regulations passed this year required growers and distributors to log harvest and transactional details, which provided more traceability, but may have been administratively cumbersome.

TIP As always, work with a reliable vendor and read the tag for yourself. If your Blue Points are being harvested out of Virginia, you are probably not buying Blue Points. This is basic stuff, but be your own detective.

SUPPLY TRENDS

3. Oyster Supply Highly Dependent On Weather

In 2014, all of us felt the winter and spring oyster shortage in some way. The brutal winter did a number on many areas and coupled with other industry factors like the Gulf oyster shortage, it threw the oyster industry into a frenzy.

2015 IMPLICATIONS

Unfortunately, most of the factors that plagued the 2014 shortage have not changed. Gulf oysters are not recovering, so expect the Gulf to supplement from the Chesapeake. New England growers continue to grow more oysters each season, but demand continues to outpace supply, therefore farms may sell out again.

The wild card determining supply will be the weather. Weather conditions ranging from wind to ice can prevent oystermen from harvesting farmed and wild product. When farmed oysters are sold out, wild fisheries sustain the market until farmed oysters are back in business. If weather is bad, expect supply to be as tight as 2014.

TIP Teach and educate your customers to be flexible. Yes, I know it's hard, and they want it on their menu all month long, but weather is unpredictable. Help them understand (or refer them to our blog) about what's going on and offer multiple/back up options. Set expectations with your customers now before supply issues come up.

4. More Stringent Vibrio Regulations

Overall, the number of reported Vibrio illnesses across the Northeast at this time is low compared to recent years. Scientists suspect one reason may be that water temperatures were significantly lower than normal early in the summer, which was unusually temperate.
— Connecticut Department of Agriculture

It's obvious that Vibrio risk increases when oyster consumption increases -- more people have the potential to be exposed to the bacteria. This past summer, we saw the new Vibrio control plans in place, which regulated the window of time oystermen could harvest before icing. The short time windows limited the oystermen's catch, and therefore affected available supply. Reported Vibrio illnesses in the Northeast were "low compared to recent years," but could be due to it being cooler than usual in the early summer. Shellfish closures included Martha's Vineyard, MA and Huntington, NY. No confirmed cases were tied to Connecticut, which had a huge recall of Blue Points in 2013.

2015 IMPLICATIONS

The regulators' goal is to decrease number of reported illnesses, and the 2014 results would indicate that something is working, so expect strict Vibrio regulations to continue. With that said, Blue Point supply and other affected oysters may be limited again during the summer, but hopefully, oystermen are better prepared this coming year, so supply should be at least the same or better than 2014.


So that about wraps up 2014. It's been a heck of a year, and we can't wait for 2015 and all the challenges that await. Cheers to our customers, vendors, and fans for making 2014 great, but 2015 is going to be even better, so stick around! As always, let us know how we can help, and of course #eatmoreoysters.

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Special thanks to Bob Rheault of East Coast Shellfish Growers Association for contributing.