The Northern Quahog is so essential to New England living because so much of our history revolves around it. It is not only used in some of our most famous dishes (clam chowder and stuffies to name a couple), it was also used as currency and jewelry among the Algonquin Tribe (wampum). As a nod to their ubiquity, people from all over the country clamor (pun intended) for them year-round, but there are times where hard-shells are hard to find. Let us help break down the 'why' to this break in the supply.
Northeastern hard-shell clams are just like any other shellfish, as they have a seasonality to them. They spawn in the spring and are fattest as sweetest into late fall. How they differ from mussels and oysters is that they burrow in their habitat in order to steer clear of predators. Clams achieve this by complex muscle movements from their tongue-like foot choreographed with the shape and movement of the shell (see photo). Once embedded in the sand and/ or mud, they reach their siphons to the opening of the sea floor bed where they can filter feed for phytoplankton and other edible matter.
To harvest during peak time, diggers look for a ‘tell’ in the form of round dimples in the sand during low tide to signify a fat clam below and use bull rakes (or in some cases dragging methods) to pull up the clams. From here, they are sorted and bagged according to size. What may surprise some is that all of the names that we use for clams’ sizes refer to the singular Mercenaria mercenaria species. Yes, a littleneck, cherrystone and quahog are all the same clam of different ages.
During the winter, these methods are still used, but with extreme caution. When the water temperature dips below 30°F, the clams go dormant meaning they burrow a bit further than the length of their siphon, covering themselves completely as they do not need to feed. Harvesters are still able to reach the clams when weather permits, but if there are any that are too small to harvest, there is little chance that the clams are able to return to their bunkers. The shock of the ice-cold air can also kill the clams, as they are not active enough to dig back into the sand immediately.
Another reason to cautiously harvest during the winter is that future populations need to be preserved. A clam reaches sexual maturity at about a year old and is classified as male. As the clam ages, it will then change over to female sex characteristics, so if all of the young population is harvested, there will be no hope for a successful spawn. Spawn occurs in the late spring to early summer, when waters reach about 65°F. The clams will burrow in shallower bunkers and their siphons will return to feeding position, which is then optimal for safe harvest.
So, yes, there will be clams this winter, but limited amounts when the weather is not at extremes. Be sure to keep in contact with us via email or by phone for up to date availability, and when the supply returns, #eatmoreclams.