Let the clamming begin: razor clams

I picked up my 2012 clamming permit from the Harbormaster this morning for $30. This means of course that the boat needs its bottom painted, battery charged, fuel filter changed, trailer tire reinflated …. and by the time I actually launch and get across the harbor to my favorite early season clam spot, I’ll be out at least $100 for a bucket of quahogs.

I jest. I don’t clam for the economics, it’s just a pastime that gives me an excuse to get on the water when there are no fish to catch or clement breezes to sail. Along with planting the spring peas on St. Pat’s, late winter-clamming is one of those rituals that must be honored — my personal version of Ash Wednesday or Cheese Sunday.

As I waited for the lady at the department of natural resources to finish laminating my card a flyer advertising a “learn to razor clam” seminar (March 11)  for kids caught my eye. That is as good an excuse as any to clam blog about a species that is gaining some traction thanks to a combination of Asian and Italian cuisine induced demand, and a fairly fun but weird way of stalking and capturing the things.

Razor clams were never eaten when I was a kid. Steamers, quahogs and oysters always made their way into the basket and eventually the table and our mouths, but the long brown razor clams were left in the mud.  The main reason I never ate one was probably because they are nigh impossible to catch with one’s bare hands because they can actually flee at a rate faster than a clammer can dig due to their streamlined shape. Named because they resemble antique straight razors, razor clams are scientifically known as Ensis Directus and colloquially as Atlantic jacknife clams or bamboo clams. The shells are about six to eight inches long, three-quarters of an inch across, and contain a long set of clam innards with a “foot” at one end, and a siphon on the other.

In the last decade a new method, salting, has caught on that makes razor clamming a breeze, one that originated in Ireland and then spread to the East Coast of the U.S..  The way it works is simple. Razor clams have a finite tolerance to salinity. Make their environment too salty and they will move, often quite vigorously. The simplest method, demonstrated in this Japanese video, is to sprinkle some salt over the razor clam’s keyhole shaped breathing hole. The salt irritates the clam, the clam first retracts, then, finding no relief, literally ejects itself upwards. Another technique is to bring along an empty plastic soda bottle, fill it with saltwater, and add enough table salt to get an ultra-salty mixture. Pour a little down the hole, and the same effect. Clam is annoyed, pops out of the hole, and the clammer snares it.

Here is an Irish how-to video using the soda bottle method:

On Cape Cod the commercial razor clam fishery has grown significantly, especially around Pleasant Bay on the east end around Chatham and Orleans. A 2005 paper on the effects of salting by some Worcester Polytech students estimated the 30 licensed commercial razor clammers in Orleans could take 300 pounds of clams out of the flats per day, raising a concern that the pressure would wipe out the flats and decimate the population (interestingly, Atlantic razor clams are considered an invasive species around Germany’s Elbe River estuary). Demand, according to the paper, is driven by the Asian and Italian markets.

The preferred commercial technique on the Cape is to salt the clams using plastic garden sprayers: the kind with a nozzle and a pump. One just walks the flat looking for the distinctive holes, gives them a squirt and then waits a few seconds for the clam to pop out.





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