A decline in the clam population has scientists worried

By MyRecipes
Updated April 09, 2018
Credit: Ivan/Getty Images

Clams tend to play second fiddle to other, more high-profile shellfish like lobsters, crabs and oysters, but whether served in chowder, fried, or simply steamed, clams are an oft underappreciated seafood staple that would certainly be missed if they were gone. But though the soft-shell clams aren’t yet in danger of disappearing, the numbers that are being harvested in New England have dwindled significantly, and it’s likely a problem that won’t be easy to fix.

According to a recent Associated Press report, the American soft-shell clams (aka “steamers”) harvest, dropped to 2.8 million pounds in 2016, the lowest total since 2000. The decline has been especially bad in Maine where just 1.4 million pounds were caught last year, the lowest total since 1930, over eight decades ago.

The culprits are a list that have become familiar in the seafood industry including common environmental issues like warmer waters, algal blooms and increased predators, as well as a fewer fisherman. Meanwhile, those fishermen who have stuck around are beginning to worry about their ability to make a living. "It has been a gradual decline, and it's getting to the point where there's a tremendous amount of acreage that's not producing anymore,” Chad Coffin, a Maine clammer, told the AP. “It should drop significantly more over the next two years.”

Brian Beal, a professor of marine ecology at the University of Maine at Machias told the AP that rising water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine continue to be a problem. “Seawater temperature is driving the biological and environmental factors that regulate clam populations,” he was quoted as saying. “That spells doom and gloom for the clamming industry and probably for other industries as well.”

If this sounds like a familiar story, unfortunately, it means you’ve been paying attention. In recent years, we’ve seen reports on how global warming has made Dungeness crabs in California inedible, has increased the risk of eating raw oysters, and could potentially wipe out Maine’s lobster population by the turn of the century.

In the case of Maine’s soft-shell clams, Beal said that increasing ocean temperatures could be tied to growing numbers of crabs, fish, and worms feeding off the clams and driving down their numbers. To put it another way, those predators are getting a chance to enjoy the seafood that should be landing in your soup. Seems like a good reason to fight global warming right there: To get your clams back from those greedy crabs!