Hard Clam

Brief History of the Hardshell Clam Fishery in the Chesapeake Bay

Chesapeake Bay Fishery

hard clamThe Tangier/Pocomoke Sounds region of tidewater Maryland has sustained a hard clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) fishery since at least the 1880's (Lyles 1969). In fact, prior to the opening of the Ocean City Inlet and subsequent salinity increase in the seaside bays, the southern Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay often was the primary source of hard clams within the state. Currently, this fishery provides an alternative for watermen confronted with severely declining oyster stocks in the region.

The Chesapeake Bay hard clam fishery has always been a minor one (Table 3). In 1908, the reported landings from this region were 78,000 pounds, compared with 8,400 pounds from Chincoteague Bay. However, this pales in comparison to Virginia harvests in that same year, which were 1,113,000 pounds from the Chesapeake and an additional 856,000 pounds from the Atlantic coastal bays. Apparently, the shallow-water populations were fished out sometime during the early 20th century (MacKenzie 1997). As a result, there were no reported landings from 1929 through 1961. Possible reasons why the deeper-water populations were not exploited include inefficient harvest gear for such low-density populations, competition from Virginia and the Maryland coastal bays (after 1933) for market share, and the presence of more abundant, lucrative fisheries such as for oysters, blue crabs, and striped bass and other finfish.

Table 3. Comparison of hard clam landings (in pounds) between the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay and the Maryland Coastal Bays, Virginia (Chesapeake Bay and seaside bays combined), and surf clams landed in Maryland.

Year Md. Chesapeake B. Md. Coastal Bays3 Virginia Surf Clams (Md.)
1908 74,000 8,400 1,969,000 -
1929-1961 No reported ldgs. 141,656/yr - -
1962 10,200 372,900 1,313,600 74,900
1964 56,900 275,100 2,417,300 37,800
1965 62,600 179,700 2,206,800 274,800
1966 25,700 146,100 1,688,000 63,600
1968 41,500 484,100 1,750,700 5,328,400
1969 34,700 759,800 1,799,000 7,126,900
1972 15,300 172,800 1,337,600 7,330,600
1976 0 36,200 893,100 7,134,800
1999 220 165,735 484,469 n/d
2000 151 63,958 447,490 n/d
2001 526 158,155 457,524 n/d
2002 24 108,277 575,661 n/d
2003 132 87,947 313,625 n/d
2004 1,605 20,478 359,219 n/d
2005 735 908 186,933 n/d
2007 79 12,960 149,639 n/d

The resurgence of the Chesapeake hard clam fishery was probably due to a combination of new harvesting technologies and favorable legislation. The invention of the hydraulic patent tongs in 1958 (Witty & Johnson 1988) allowed more efficient harvesting in deeper waters, especially around the edges of oyster bars where clams were most abundant. In 1962, a modest 10,000 pounds of hard clams were harvested from the Chesapeake Bay, the first reported landings in decades. Landings grew to 60,000 pounds by 1965, but this was still only10% of total hard clam harvests in Maryland, the remainder coming from the coastal bays. Hydraulic escalator dredges were legalized for catching hard clams in Tangier and Pocomoke Sounds in 1965 (Laws of Md. 1965, Ch. 863). Previously this gear had only been allowed for harvesting softshell clams (Mya arenaria). This gear was highly effective in shallower waters but was not permitted within 150 ft. of designated oyster bars, allowing patent tongs to continue fishing those areas. There was no discernable increase in landings after the introduction of the hydraulic escalator dredge.

The timing was poor for the introduction of these innovative gear types to the Chesapeake hard clam fishery. Only two years after being permitted in Pocomoke and Tangier Sounds, the hydraulic escalator dredge was legalized in the coastal bays, inundating the local markets with hard clams. At about the same time, cheap abundant surf clams deluged – on the order of millions of pounds - the processed clam market (canned chowder, fried clam strips, etc), and hard clam landings in Maryland nosedived (Table 3). In 1976, no hard clam landings were reported from the Chesapeake. During the mid-1990's, approximately 8 – 12 boats were involved in the Chesapeake hard clam fishery. However, these faced further competition from the nascent aquaculture industry in Virginia. After the turn of the millennium, landings were measured in the hundreds or even tens of pounds – truly a remnant fishery.

Lyles, C.H. 1969. Chesapeake production of clam meats, 1880-1967, p. 47. In: Historical Catch Statistics (Shellfish). U.S. Dept. Interior, Fish. Wildlife Serv., Bur. Comm. Fish. C.F.S. No. 5007. Wash., D.C.

MacKenzie Jr., C.L. 1997. The molluscan fisheries of Chesapeake Bay, p. 141-169. In: C.L. MacKenzie Jr., V.G. Burrell Jr., A. Rosenfield, and W.L. Hobart (eds.). The history, present condition, and future of the molluscan fisheries of North and Central America and Europe, Volume 1, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. U.S. Dept. Commer., NOAA Tech. Rept. 127. Seattle, Wa.

Witty, A. and P.J. Johnson. 1988. An introduction to the catalog of artifacts. Oystering, p. 114-173. In: P.J. Johnson (ed.). Working the Water: The Commercial Fisheries of Maryland's Patuxent River. Calvert Marine Museum and The University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.