Sea Clams, a.k.a. Surf Clams


Sea clams, also called surf clams or Atlantic surf clams, are small to large, white-shelled animals found underwater even at low tide. While edible, sea clams (Spisula solidissima) are much less well-known than steamer clams or littlenecks, cherrystones and quahogs. Their flesh is tougher. But they have a number of uses, live from Maine to Delaware, are farmed in Japan, and they get up to about 8" long (20 cm).

Commercially, sea clams are most often harvested by trawlers, medium-sized vessels that drag a large rake behind them to pull up masses of scallops or clams. They can also be harvested by hand, usually during extra low lowtides (usually near the full moon and new moon), using a pitchfork to locate their hard shells. That is very popular for example in Scarborough Maine just a couple feet from where I now sit and type.

Often, sea clams are used as bait. They are effective on a hook and line for catching everything from scup and tautog, to flounder and eels in shallow waters. Dock fishing is a pleasant way for anyone to spend a summer afternoon, and you can use a hand line or a traditional fishing pole. A handline normally is a red, square wooden frame made of four joined lengths of wood, each about six inches long. About 50 feet or so of coarse line comes wrapped around the square when you purchase it. Tie a wire leader to the end of the line – two half-hitches is a good knot – then clip on a lead sinker and a hook. Sea clams are available along with sand eels and seaworms at any bait store. Separate each sea clam body from its shell, then pierce the clam at the thickest part of the body, which is often orange, making sure the hook is well-surrounded by firm clam tissue so that no fish can run off with your bait. You should clip on a lead sinker also, a 2 or 3, depending on the current so that your baited hook remains stationary on the bottom. Play out enough line so that you feel your baited hook come to rest on the ocean bottom – high tide is the right time for this sort of fishing. Fish are attracted to sea clams by smell. Give it an hour or two, and your odds are good of catching almost anything. Sea clams are popular with many types of small game fish.

One popular use for sea clams is in commercial, canned clam chowder. They are like quahogs in that they live underwater at all times, but unlike them in that sea clams can live underwater at considerable distance from the shoreline. Sea clam meat harvested commercially is generally minced by machine, then tenderized using a combination of marinating and pounding by heavy weight. While you can eat a sea clam you happen to dig up with your foot from the ocean floor while swimming, you might not want to. They are prepared just like a steamer clam: kept overnight in seawater to spit out any sand inside them, then dumped into a half-inch of water and boiled for about 12 minutes. When almost all the shells have popped open, your sea clams, and/or steamers are ready to be served. Hand serving bowls out to each guest along with two small side bowls, one for the broth, one for drawn butter. You will notice right away that like conch, sea clam flesh is sweet, but much too chewy for easy consumption. It is possible to extract the meats, tenderize them using needle presses or even pounding with a hammer, then marinate same using a solution based on some acidic chemical that breaks down meat fibers such as lemon juice. The result can be used for clam pie. But frankly, casual fans of clams need not go to the effort sea clams require, because where they are present steamers and hard-shelled clams are unlikely to be too far away.

Some allege that family restaurant clam chowder served at chain restaurants, such as Howard Johnson’s, or fried clams at these same places, use sea clams, not steamer or hard-shell clams. No one has ever proved this, but it is true sea clams are much less expensive on the wholesale market than other clams.

A major problem with the commercial harvest of sea clams is bycatch. This term refers to any fish, mammals or crustaceans accidentally pulled out of the water along with the boat’s intended prey. Bycatch has been shown to have a dangerous impact on declining fish stocks, and scientists today are trying to develop new, more efficient ways for trawlers to leave the catch they are not after safe to reproduce and for others to harvest.

Whether you call them sea clams, surf clams, or Atlantic surf clams, their shells often are found on beaches and children love to collect them.

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