Most years, Moochie Gilmer scoops up little more than razor clams from the sandy Chesapeake Bay bottom near Kent Island. The 62-year-old waterman has been selling his catch from there as bait to crabbers since the late 1980s.
But in the last three years, the hydraulic dredge aboard his boat, “In Lieu Of,” has brought up a growing number of soft shell clams, rarer finds these days that garner double the price of razors. He sells them mostly to buyers in the Northeast, who use them in chowder, fry them as whole-belly clams or steam them. Lately, though, he’s been holding back a growing number for local eaters.
Soft shells, named for their comparatively brittle, elongated shells that are propped open by protruding leathery siphons, were so abundant and such popular fare in the 1950s and ’60s that the state of Maryland crowned a “clam queen” to promote the vibrant fishery. A string of diseases and worsening water conditions decimated soft shell populations in the 1990s and 2000s, leaving few clammers dredging for them — until recently.
Whether conditions have improved, or the soft shells (Mya arenaria) have just had a few banner years in a row, scientists don’t know. But in the last couple of years, harvesters have been bringing in exponentially more soft shells than the couple hundred bushels they’d reported annually until then.
Soft-shell landings shot to 5,000 bushels for the 2014–15 season, compared with 150 bushels the year before. The harvest doubled to more than 10,000 bushels last season, according to data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Frank Marenghi, a natural resource biologist with the department’s shellfish program, said the number of harvesters has increased as well, from just eight individuals licensed three years ago to 32 last season.
“These aren’t huge numbers, but it’s a big increase,” Marenghi said. “That would all indicate that there’s definitely more clams around, which is good. We don’t know if the disease dynamics have changed, if it’s a fluke or if things are starting to rebound.”
Chesapeake Bay residents might not notice the uptick in soft shells — which are also called manos, longnecks, steamers and white clams — because most of them are sold to markets in New England. But enough locals remember the old days of plenty that they’re eager to buy them when available.
To both meet and generate more of that demand, Gilmer and a few others have been selling more soft shells to restaurants on the Eastern Shore, to customers in Annapolis and even to the occasional Virginia eatery.
“There’re people here that, once they found out we had ’em, they definitely bought ’em,” Gilmer said. “But a lot of people don’t realize we have ’em again.”
Gilmer and others are wondering if the soft shells will stick around long enough to re-establish markets in the Bay region at a time when chefs and customers alike are clamoring for more local food.
The hydraulic escalator dredge that’s still used to scrape clams from their sandy burrows came to Maryland in 1951. A few years later, the soft-shell fishery hit its stride, with harvesters bringing in an average of 460,000 bushels per year until about 1971. Some watermen observed that three or four times as many were available but not harvested because of restrictions, according to Maryland DNR’s records on the fishery.
Even before Tropical Storm Agnes hit in 1972, a parasite called Perkinsus chesapeaki started infecting soft shells in Virginia waters, causing that state’s fishery to collapse in the late 1960s. The parasite would later infect Maryland populations in the 1990s, contributing to a precipitous decline there.
After the storm, Maryland harvests plummeted to 165,000 bushels per year before posting a modest rebound in the late 1980s to 260,000 bushels annually. Then disease took its toll.
The infections, which scientists believe were coupled with slowly warming waters, eventually took annual harvests down to a few thousand bushels per year. Maryland began classifying the fishery as “remnant,” with most clammers choosing instead to pursue the razor clam fishery that started in the 1980s to provide bait for crabs.
A few years ago, Anson “Tuck” Hines, director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, revisited the widely held theory that Agnes put the nail in the soft-shell fishery’s coffin.
In a two-year study, Hines measured the impact of more recent storms like Hurricane Sandy on soft shell populations and found that other factors were in play.
In 2012, a very hot summer among a string of hotter summers made the clams more susceptible to disease than the storm itself. Most of the soft shells were infected with Perkinsus at sub-lethal levels, “but multiple stressors have higher impacts,” Hines said. The disease is closely related to Perkinsus marinus, which causes Dermo, a disease that has plagued Chesapeake Bay oysters for decades. Though they can be fatal to the shellfish, the diseases are harmless to people who eat them.
Why soft shells never quite recovered from the storm Agnes remains something of a mystery, though Hines believes more factors than the storm set the stage for their slump. Virginia has yet to recover a viable population of soft shells, or industry for them.
Research in soft shells has largely ebbed with the industry, but, Hines said, the bivalves remain ecologically important.
“Everyone thinks of oysters for their filtration, but these other bivalves are also important, especially as major prey items for key species like blue crabs,” said Hines, whose work focuses on blue crabs.
In a 2011 report, Maryland’s DNR estimated that soft-shell clams once constituted at least 35 percent of the state’s large bivalve population, which includes oysters, razors and hard clams.
Since scientists think soft shells filter and clean just as much water as oysters. Their loss “has had to have had a profound effect on the Bay’s ecosystem,” the report states.
Hines has concerns about the ecological impact of dredging on the sensitive environments where soft shells burrow to escape the clutches of crabs and rays. But he, too, would like to see the fishery thrive again.
“We know that there are entrepreneurial watermen and seafood marketing folks out there, and they could see an opportunity here,” he said.
Steve Vilnit, marketing director for the JJ McDonnell & Co. seafood wholesaler in Jessup, MD, said the Bay region has for years gotten only the soft shells “left over” once the majority have been sold to Northeast markets, and even that has been sporadic.
It’s hard to sell restaurants, let alone retail customers, on an item that’s available for a few years and then not at all, he explained.
“I think it’s something we’re going to have to reintroduce to the market,” Vilnit said. “If we have a few good seasons in a row and people start getting used to them, people will see them as popular again. I definitely think chefs think there’s potential, and chefs are itching for anything local they can get.”
Adam Stein, executive chef at Red’s Table in Reston, VA, was thrilled to get his hands on soft shells when JJ McDonnell had them in stock earlier this year. The chef cut his teeth in Providence, RI, where soft shells were always fried as whole belly clams, so that’s how he served them on his menu.
“For people who actually like clams, the flavor is just incomparable,” said Stein, who called them “Ipswich” clams in New England. “It’s great when you can do fried clams and surprise somebody with how good they taste.”
If customers continue warming to the clams, Stein said he could consider putting them on the menu as steamers, a New England specialty that serves the bivalves with their shells popped open and siphon handles hanging out.
“It’s something that, if it was available and the prices weren’t so erratic, I’d be happy to put it on the hard menu and offer them all the time,” Stein said.
Kelly Barnes worked with Moochie Gilmer to get soft shells into two of the biweekly shares of local seafood she started offering this year as manager of the Annapolis-based Old Line Fish Co. Barnes said customers thought the clams, which were handed out raw in their shells with the siphons still attached, were either “fantastic” or “disgusting.”
“A lot of people said they’d never had them before, and one young customer said it was her favorite of the whole season,” said Lauren Donnelly, also with Old Line Fish Co.
For customer Luke Morgan, who grew up on the Potomac River in St. Mary’s County, MD, with a waterman grandfather, getting soft shells in the box was like a walk down memory lane.
Still, he said after picking up his final seafood share of the season, “my wife won’t eat the oysters or clams, so I have to eat them myself.”
Gilmer said he enjoyed selling his clams to local residents through the program. He has been selling more of them to nearby restaurants, too, including the Fisherman’s Inn restaurant and Harris Crab House in Kent Narrows, Kentmorr Restaurant on Kent Island and Cantler’s Riverside Inn in Annapolis.
“Anybody that contacts us locally, we’ll sell ’em,” said Gilmer, who dredges for the clams in the Chester River and around Kent Island.
This season, Gilmer said he was able to bring in close to the state’s daily limit of soft shells, which he said ranges from five to 15 bushels in the summer and is eight bushels per day in the winter.
He knows the uptick in soft shells could be short-lived, beaten back by the next storm, warmer waters or more pollutants. Hines seems to think that’s nearly inevitable, as warming water temperatures are pushing suitable habitats for soft shells farther north. A 2015 study by the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science found surface temperatures were increasing over five-year averages in 92 percent of the Bay’s waters.
But are there other options? If a few good years of wild soft shells revives demand, could they be farmed here like oysters, with benefits for both the Bay’s ecology and its gastronomes?
Hard clams are farmed in the lower Delmarva Peninsula, where cherrystones make up the third most lucrative agricultural product. But soft shells are a different story. While a few farm them outside of Boston, their thin shells and deep burrowing habits would require more research — and resources — to effectively grow, Hines said. Taylor Shellfish Farms on the West Coast has found a way to grow geoducks, a larger relative of the soft shell that goes primarily to Asian markets.
“It’s all price-driven,” said Hines, who would still like to explore the potential for farming soft shells here. “We keep trying to grow oysters and ignoring these other potentials.”
For Gilmer’s part, soft shells are “too delicate” to consider growing in an aquaculture system, but he’ll continue picking them while they’re around.
“They’re a hard creature to figure out,” said Gilmer, who dredges for soft shells and razors year-round. “But, when the conditions are right, they can rebound.”