Oct 24, 2018 | Plumbing the Depths

A meal featuring small surf clams. Staff photo by Melissa Sanderson

By Lisa Cavanaugh

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SOOOO good!

Wonderful – clams had a great flavor! 

This is much better than any clams and linguine I have ever had in a restaurant! 

Definitely my favorite, will make at home!

Those are a smattering of comments from people who attended the Clam Slam at Wellfleet Oysterfest October 14 and enjoyed surf clams, mini ones, prepared by Boston chef and part-time Eastham resident, Marc Orfaly.

The group was lucky as most haven’t had the opportunity to enjoy smaller surf clams, but that is slated to change due to recent efforts by local organizations working to support aquaculture on Cape Cod.

When you say surf clam, most people think of big sea clams caught off shore, often used for clam strips and chowders. When wild harvested, they have to be at least five inches wide. But in 2016 Massachusetts changed the regulations to allow shellfish farmers who grow surf clams on an aquaculture grant to harvest at 1.5 inches. At that small size they are tender and delicious.

“Small surf clams are not quite quahogs and not quite steamers,” says Melissa Sanderson of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, one of the leads on two grant-funded initiatives to study, sample and promote small surf clams. “They have a harder shell than a steamer and a bit more belly than a quahog. They have a very clean and sweet flavor.”

Currently, 96 percent of shellfish grown in Massachusetts are oysters, a “dangerous monoculture,” notes Sanderson. A harmful algae bloom or disease could be catastrophic, so with $28 million in growers’ revenues at stake, working with surf clams gives local shellfish farmers a critical opportunity to diversify their businesses.

One of the Fishermen’s Alliance’s collaborations is with Aquacultural Research Corporation, A.R.C., Hatchery in Dennis and Barnstable County Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Marine Program. A.R.C. was awarded a two-year federal Saltonstall-Kennedy grant to determine best practices for a hatchery to spawn surf clams and grow them to the right size, and then determine what is the best way to farm them.

“It’s about the long view,” says Sanderson. “We realize the lack of diversification could be a threat in the future. We also know that businesses growing shellfish don’t always have the luxury of experimenting with different shellfish to see what works and how, so we work with partners to make the mistakes so grant holders don’t have to.”

In 2017, A.R.C. had success growing them in the hatchery, and the County Extension team planted them and continues to monitor five field sites on shellfish farms around the Cape to determine effective aquaculture practices.

“Some of the questions we are trying to answer concern how to plant them,” says Sanderson. “Should you put them in oyster bags or softer Florida bags? Do you put them under a net like quahogs? Do they like warm water or cold water? Do they like muddy sand or rocky sand? They move a lot, so figuring out how to contain and protect them is important.” Initial results show that they grow faster when they can bury in the sand and avoid extreme heat and cold.

The researchers go every month to sample and measure the test clams. This work will continue through December 2018. Meanwhile the partners are also working on an initial market assessment to give growers and buyers more information about these shellfish. Since they are a new product, there is not a lot of existing market demand for them.

“In collaboration with UMass Boston, we’ve done some sampling with chefs and outreach to wholesalers and retailers about what would be a good price point,” says Sanderson. “The question a grower is going to ask before investing is, ‘What am I going to be able to sell it for?’”

Another surf clam project the Fishermen’s Alliance is involved with explores these business concepts more fully. Working again with County Extension and Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, Inc. (SPAT), funded by NOAA Sea Grant, they are taking a hard look at the marketing aspect of not only surf clams, but also blood arks (small clams similar to a cockle, with reddish juice) and shucked oysters. The goal is to have an assessment that identifies potential demand across the country and which value-added products could command better prices.

“Right now all of our oysters go to the raw bar market, and get shucked on site, which commands a premium price,” says Sanderson. “So we are looking at alternative markets as oyster production in the state is increasing. At some point we will have more oysters than demand and will need additional market options.”

In addition, many Cape Cod towns are using oysters to clean up their waste water by removing nitrogen as they grow their shells, so all those extra oysters will need to go somewhere. The Fishermen’s Alliance, County Extension and SPAT are determining if it is feasible to promote a shelf-stable shucked or smoked oyster product.

“We are interested in the entire project,” says Michele Insley, Executive Director of SPAT. “Much of our local industry is focused on oysters, so learning the viability of the shucked oyster potential is important. But we also have a great environment for clams too, so gaining knowledge about expanded species to give our shellfish farmers a chance to diversify their season and growing products is vital.”

Barnstable County shellfish landings of oysters, quahogs, bay scallops, steamers, and razor clams was worth $22.4 million in 2017, which is 30 percent of all marine seafood landings in the county.

While aquaculturists need good data on potential profit margins, the rest of us will want to know how we can enjoy these new little clams once they hit the market. “You can steam them like a steamer,” says Sanderson, “and they are a great pasta clam. Think classic clam pasta dishes, like garlic with white wine.” The delicious recipe demonstrated by Chef Orfaly at the Clam Slam is available online at

Community Journalist Doreen Leggett contributed to this report


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