GOULDSBORO — The Gouldsboro Shellfish Conservation Committee has agreed to help a scientist study what he calls “a really interesting beast.”
That beast is the arctic surf clam. Could it become a new source of income for clammers? Brian Beal, professor of marine biology at the University of Maine at Machias, wants to explore the possibility through a study he hopes to begin in March or April 2021.
Beal visited Gouldsboro Jan. 8 to do a presentation on his proposed experiment in anticipation of a Jan. 15 deadline to apply for a grant from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. He will find out in July whether his grant application was successful.
The experiment will mean setting up what Beal calls “fortresses” to protect the clams from predators such as the green crab in three different locations. In addition to Gouldsboro, the experiment will be conducted off Beals Island. As of Monday, Beal was still looking for a third site.
The arctic surf clam is native to waters up to 200 feet deep. Canadian fishermen harvest them using hydraulic dredging equipment. They cut off the clam’s foot for sushi and grind up the rest of it for dog food, Beal said.
The ones dredged in Canada are 25 to 30 years old and quite large. Whole arctic surf clams that measure less than 2 inches can be eaten whole, raw or steamed.
“They’re unbelievable,” said Beal when asked if they taste good. “We can find markets for these things.”
In 2009, the Maine Department of Marine Resources allowed Beal to travel to Canada and bring back live arctic surf clams for study. Although arctic surf clams don’t grow naturally in the intertidal area, they can live there with soft-shell clams with no adverse effects on either species, he said. Arctic surf clams are, however, even more susceptible to green crabs than soft-shell clams, which means creating a protected environment is critical.
Beal performed many experiments in an attempt to determine whether arctic surf clams can be grown in Maine. None of them were as successful as the ones conducted in 2019 in Cutler and Beals. He attributed the success to the design of his clam fortress, a box covered with fine netting. He hopes to repeat the results in the upcoming study.
During the 2019 study, he placed regular sand in the bottom of the boxes so as not to introduce any green crabs to the containers. He placed 50 to 200 seed clams in each box and double netted them. The results in Beals were surprising.
“I saw something that I had never seen, which was live arctic surf clams,” Beal said.
In the five boxes in which he had planted 50 seed clams, he found 49 to 50 in each. The success rate was duplicated in the boxes containing 100 and 200 clams.
“I couldn’t believe it. I never, never had results like this,” he said. “We got survival rates that were embarrassingly high and four of the previous five years, all we got was crap.”
In Cutler, gulls or another predator ripped open nine of the 15 fortress boxes. Survival rates for the intact boxes were the same as in Beals. But, even in the boxes that had been ripped open, survival rates averaged 40 to 60 percent.
“We’ve learned how to produce small arctic surf clams,” he said. “Again, this is in green crab city.”
Beal said the next experiment, should he get funding, will attempt to duplicate the 2019 results but the number of clams being planted could be as high as 400 per box.
“We’ve got to show that we can come up with a consistent product,” he said.
He also is seeking funding to pay several clammers a total of $1,800 to set up the boxes at the beginning of the experiment and bring them in at the end.
If the experiment is successful, work would begin on developing a market.
“These will never get sold by the volume. They’ll be sold by the piece,” Beal said. “They’re just too valuable.”
Beal said arctic surf clams would be planted in deeper waters, where soft-shell clams currently aren’t found. Growing arctic surf clams would supplement clammers’ income, not create a competing market.
“I do imagine this is something that will enhance the livelihood of clammers if they want,” he said.