Are Urban Shellfish Doomed?

Whether because of spills or chronic contamination, urban shellfish populations are on the decline, taking with them jobs and food.

Why Are Urban Shellfish Populations on the Decline?

Soft-shell clams (Photo: Olivia Boinet/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

For John Denehy and his fellow clammers, the shallows around Logan International Airport in Boston were fertile waters for their beloved soft-shell clam. Two of the clam beds among which Denehy and others worked were more productive than all the others in Boston Harbor combined.

Then, seemingly overnight, the clams in two of the previously lucrative beds died off completely. For Denehy, a lifelong clammer, the October 2010 discovery was crushing.

“I was devastated,” he told The Boston Phoenix in 2011. “We were in such disbelief that I wanted to cry.”

Clamming in Boston Harbor has been endangered for almost a century, and the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries reports that the waters have a third less harvestable crop than they did a decade ago. But in 2010, the remaining clams' gradual exit from the urban harbor may have been sped along by a huge fuel spill at Logan airport that the clammers allege decimated their harvest. So last fall Denehy, representing the Boston Clamdiggers’ Association, sued Swissport, which fuels planes at Logan, and the Massachusetts Port Authority (which owns and operates the airport).

The clam diggers are suing for damages and back compensation for what they say amounts to a loss of their livelihood. Between 2005 and 2010, Denehy and his compatriots hauled in nearly a quarter-million dollars in clams from Boston Harbor, according to the legal complaint filed in October at the United States District Court in Boston.

The case, which is awaiting an impending ruling from a District Court judge, is emblematic of the conflict between the interests of near-shore shell fishermen and the realities of our ever-expanding coastal cities. Spills and other “acute contamination” affecting shellfish may be an easier problem to address than ongoing pollution, says Peter Shelley, a vice president with the Conservation Law Foundation.

“Runoff from runways at Logan is probably a lot more of a problem over time,” he points out. “The great part of shellfish is that they filter the water. The bad news is that the water’s dirty, and it can contaminate them or even cause them to die. I don’t know if there’s a win-win solution for shellfish, at least in these urban areas.”

Even outside Boston, those whose livelihoods depend on these shellfish aren't rolling over easily—especially when they feel they've been wronged. In January, a group representing 75 clammers filed a million-dollar suit against New York City alleging that wastewater runoff after Hurricane Sandy ruined their business for two months. In Florida, a clam farmer asked a judge to halt restoration work on a lagoon where he farms the shellfish, saying the project was destroying his beds. Red Bank, N.J., drew the ire of shell fishermen there who said clam populations have decreased because of pollution from the town.

And that’s just clams.

Across the shellfishing industry, depletion is here to stay, experts say. But it’s not all bad news. Massachusetts, for instance, has worked hard to rebuild its declining shellfish populations, says Andrew Jay, president of the Massachusetts Oyster Project, a nonprofit working to restore bivalves in the Commonwealth. He says the state is trying to accomplish this in two ways: building back up the shellfish beds where they’ve been depleted and supporting a shellfish purification plant in Newburyport that cleanses clams and other shellfish for human consumption.

Shelley adds that there’s another simple, important way we can start to rebuild some of the fisheries that provide both food and jobs: “Stop treating the ocean like a trash can.”

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