Troubled waters for shellfish farmers in America

The New England coastline is in the grip of the worst outbeak of 'red tide' for more than 30 years. Shellfish farmers fear it could close their businesses for good. David Usborne reports
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The Independent US

"They're pissers," the waitress confided in hushed tones so the other patrons at the restaurant, the venerable Sono Fish Market in South Norwalk, Connecticut, would not hear. "Enjoy."

"They're pissers," the waitress confided in hushed tones so the other patrons at the restaurant, the venerable Sono Fish Market in South Norwalk, Connecticut, would not hear. "Enjoy."

I was indulging in a ritual of summer, practised with glee up and down the New England coast for generations at this time of year. Before me was a plate piled high with wrinkly seafood in breadcrumbs, tartar sauce on the side which, to me, looked much like calamari. But this is no squid. I am eating soft-shell clams, also known as belly clams or pissers, because of their habit of squirting water in your eye.

The joy of the American clam season is muted this year, however, as much of the north-east coastline, from Maine down to the tip of Cape Cod, battles with the worst outbreak of the so-called "red tide" seen in more than thirty years. It is an ecological calamity that has forced the closure of most of the region's shellfish beds, both near the shoreline and out to sea by as much as 100 miles. It has already led Massachusetts and Maine to declare states of emergency in hopes of attracting federal aid.

"Red tide" is so called because of the rusty hue that ocean waters take on when concentrations of algae rise too far. But the problem is not an aesthetic one. The algae contains toxins that gather in shellfish which feed by filtering gallons of seawater for plankton and other nutrients. If eaten by humans, they could cause serious sickness and, in some cases, death.

As it baffles marine scientists, the "red tide" is casting a pall over the whole region. Connecticut, so far, has not been affected, but with 35 per cent of America's shellfish beds closed, and likely to remain so at least until the midsummer, when the blooms are expected to subside, no one is escaping the outbreak's impact.

My pissers, for instance, would have normally been supplied by clammers in Massachusetts and Maine. Instead, its owner, Leslie Miklovich, is being forced to buy them from Maryland. And, to anyone who knows their clams, they are not quite the real thing. Thanks to the shortage, they are more expensive and getting pricier by the day. Latest statistics show that market prices are already about 15 per cent higher.

Ms Miklovich can only be grateful, however, that the tide had not reached into Long Island Sound. "We would be out of business," she squarely admits. As well as her restaurant, she manages 10,000 acres of clam beds in the Long Island Sound.

Her family has harvested clams - not pissers but hard-shell clams - in these waters since 1875. She knows what this disaster can mean. Eight years ago, an outbreak of disease wiped out 95 per cent of her oyster production and she is still struggling to recover. Casting her eyes along the coast to the north, she reflects, "It's got to be devastating up there."

She's right. This is the season, in early summer, when fishermen venture out onto the mudflats to collect the clams that provide them with much of the income to sustain them through the rest of the year. It is also an industry that attracts countless university students eager for money in the summer break.

A plate of clams for seaside-dwellers in the American north-east is what strawberries and cream are to the British. No summer would be complete without them. Salty, rather than sweet, they must be fleshy and juicy, preferably eaten off a cardboard plate. A serious clam-eater knows which ones are good and which are not. It is all to do with the salinity of the water and the bottom they have occupied. Much better a clam from a muddy bed than from a sandy one, which can mean crunching between the teeth Ask Joanne Caplin, for instance, who one day last week stopped by Fjord Fisheries in Greenwich, a few miles off Norwalk, to collect supplies from fishmonger Jardar Nygaard for her first clam-bake of the season.

The old way of doing a clambake involves digging a pit on the beach, throwing in stones and lighting a fire on top of them. When the stones are super-hot, you remove the burning wood and throw on the clams with a layer of seaweed on top. A few hours later - traditionally filled by unrestrained consumption of beer - the clams will be ready.

Caplin, however, will do the bake the way most do nowadays - steamed in huge pots on the BBQ in the garden. "I will put them in salt water with cornmeal for an hour or so," she says, explaining that the meal irritates the still-living clams and forces them to spit out whatever grit or sand they may still be harbouring. The steaming - in water mixed equally with white wine - will take about 20 minutes.

Before leaving, she inevitably quizzes Nygaard about the progress of the red tide. "Most of them who come in here are concerned," reports Bob Ranzetti, a barman at the Mansion Clam House in Westport, Connecticut, a favourite local haunt for clam-lovers. "But the press have done a pretty good job of reassuring people they will not be eating anything bad here.

And at Fjord Fisheries, Nygaard is similarly confident that his customers have nothing to worry about. "People are asking every day," he says, "but any dealer would be absolutely crazy to sell an affected clam".

But in those seaports where the closures are in force, it is as bad as it can get. The algae is showing no mercy. "This couldn't come at a worse time," said Ted Keon, coastal resources director in the Chatham, on Cape Cod, which for generations has thrived from its shellfish production. "This is when the shellfishermen make their money. They're really up the creek."

"This is the time of year when you start coming out to make some money," agreed Pete Schimmel, 45, who has dug clams on Cape Cod for 15 years. "You're just through paying your taxes, your license, your mooring fee."

The tide is also putting a damper on Cape Cod's all-important tourist business. Visitors want to eat local clams, not clams brought in from somewhere else.

But marine experts are struggling to offer explanations. "This is unlike anything we have observed before and the situation is still unfolding. We don't fully understand why it's so bad this year," said Dennis McGillicuddy, deputy director of the Woods Hole Center for Oceans & Human Health in Massachusetts.

The culprit, more technically known as Alexandrium fundyense, is naturally occurring in the ocean at the start of the summer. In most years, however, it is confined to cooler waters further north, close to Maine, and drifts out to the ocean on the prevailing westerly winds. This year, however, the blooms were more intense than normal, possibly fed by nutrients in run-off from the shore that was greater this year because of a wet spring.

On top of that, the region went through two protracted off-sh`ore storms in late spring that pushed the algae back towards the land and also to the south. So far, the affected area extends all the way south to Buzzards Bay, just below the southern end of Cape Cod.

Scientists are meanwhile worrying that the heavy presence of the algae this year could mean that it will seed itself over a much larger area than normal. The algae drops "cysts" onto the bed of the ocean where they can remain buried under silt, sometimes for years, until they burst forth releasing a new crop that rises to the surface. That could suggest that events like this year's red tide could return to the region much more frequently.

The algae that causes the New England red tide is not quite as noxious as the different variety responsible for similar red tide problems in recent years in Florida. The algae there causes similar discolouration of the water, but produces toxins capable of killing fish and even manatees. It also emits a vapour that stings the nose and eyes and can cause serious symptoms in humans with respiratory problems. Not only does it mean suspension of fishing in Florida, it also means the closing of tourist beaches.

The poison in the northern algae is nonetheless a potent neurotoxin called saxotoxin. Researchers are divided over why it is found in the algae. Maybe it produces it as a protection mechanism to ward off devouring plankton. Alternatively, it could be there for no reason at all.

But the misery of many has brought unexpected good fortune to others. The clam fields of Maryland, in the Chesapeake Bay, have been declining for decades, unable to compete with the bounty further north in Massachusetts and Maine.

This year, however, the few clammers that remain in the bay area find themselves suddenly more popular than an icehouse in a heatwave. They are shipping soft-shell clams north as fast they can.

"They want all we can get right now," Bill Boulter, a longtime clammer who works his boat, the Emma and Sara, in the waters near Kent Island in the bay, told the Baltimore Sun. "The market's been open for weeks, ever since the red tide hit, I guess."

The good news for folk further north, meanwhile, is that when the blooming season finally ends, probably next month, the molluscs, which normally filter as much as 2 1/2 gallons of seawater every day, will flush out the toxins relatively quickly. Then the harvesting ban can be lifted.

Relief is not likely to come in time for the 4th of July holiday, however, when the quest for the perfect clam - whether served on the deck of waterside restaurants or from a cauldron at the family clambake - will reach its annual peak.