In Ipswich, when temperatures are well below freezing and the tidal flats are covered in ice, Paul Damon still digs for clams. Even when it dips to 11 or 12 degrees, he’ll take his boat to reach the flats — exposed expanses of mud that appear at low tide. Only when he tosses out the anchor and it bounces off the solid mud does he head home.
It used to be that Ipswich clammers couldn’t even make it to some flats in winter because the river at the Town Wharf would freeze a foot thick. When that happened, Vinny Burridge would set up a hut on the bend of river off the boat ramp to go ice fishing. He’d poke holes in a can of tuna and dangle it from a string into a hole in the ice to attract smelt. Burridge hasn’t used his ice hut since the mid-1980s. “The ice just isn’t around long enough,” he tells me.
Having grown up a few hundred yards from the wharf, I’ve never seen the river frozen thick enough to camp out. But I’ve watched it freeze every winter. On early January mornings, when I headed to work at Zumi’s Espresso downtown, I’d see bundled clammers unloading their boats down the ramp. Their vessels reminded me of miniature icebreakers in the Arctic, navigating patchworked floes on their commute to work.
New England has earned its reputation for long, harsh winters. But since 1970, winters in Massachusetts have warmed more than 1 degree every decade. It’s no longer cold enough to regularly freeze the river solid. Not cold enough to deter the clammers.
And not cold enough to protect the clams from the insatiable green crab.
As a child, I had the sense that Ipswich and the surrounding North Shore were the hub of the clam universe. After all, we have an annual chowder fest and a restaurant shaped like a clam box, and my seventh-grade history teacher, Mr. Woodman, was related to the man said to be the fried clam’s inventor (depending on whom you ask). Yet it wasn’t until I left for college that I fully understood how unique our thriving clam industry was. Most of my friends from outside New England had never eaten fried clams, and some had never heard of them.
There are little necks, cherrystones, and surf clams, but the North Shore is known for its soft-shell clams, aptly nicknamed “Ipswich clams.” They can be fried, steamed, or served in clam chowder. Vinny Burridge’s family sometimes roasts the clams on the beach over hot rocks and seaweed, a method borrowed from early Native American tradition. It was in the early 1900s, with the purported advent of the fried clam, that a flurry of shellfish restaurants opened, including Woodman’s of Essex in 1914, and a little over 20 years later, farther down Route 133, Ipswich’s Clam Box. Today, “People would walk through broken glass for a clam plate,” Damon says.
I first met Paul Damon when he would come into Zumi’s for coffee after a morning on the flats. At 61, he’s silver-haired and lean from over four decades of clamming. His friendly eyes are fringed with smile lines; faded tattoos adorn his arms; and he wears a turquoise forever ring that he got with his girlfriend, Janice.
He remembers his first day on the flats, when he was only 17, like it was yesterday. He and his best friend motored out to Luffkins Flat off Plum Island. By day’s end, they had dug what he now considers an embarrassingly small number of clams, and Damon felt like his back was broken. All these years later, there’s nothing else he’d rather be doing. “I love it. I’ll do it till the day I die,” he says, adding with a wink, “Or until Janice tells me, ‘That’s it, you’re done.’”
But something else might keep Damon off the flats. In recent years, the clams have been disappearing. Farther north, Maine’s $18.2 million soft-shell clam industry is tanking. “We’re at a point where there’s so few clams that no one that’s alive right now has seen this few clams on flats,” says Brian Beal, a marine ecologist at the University of Maine and a leading figure in soft-shell clam research. In Massachusetts in 2007, more than 6 million pounds of soft-shell clams were commercially harvested; in 2020, the harvest was a little over half of that.
And Ipswich’s $2.2 million soft-shell clam industry, which constituted nearly a third of the overall Massachusetts clam fishery in 2018? “We’re kind of the only place that there are clams left anywhere now,” says biologist Wayne Castonguay, executive director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association.
Ever the scientist, John Hagan set up an aquarium in his basement to see how the invasive European green crab eats a full-grown soft-shell clam. “It was kind of a horror movie,” recalls Hagan, former president of Manomet, an environmental nonprofit headquartered in Plymouth that studies coastal ecosystems around the world. When he dropped a clam in the tank, the crabs were on it in seconds. They crushed the shell and ripped out the clam’s soft body. On the tidal flats, it’s even easier. Clams stick their neck-like siphons out of the mud to breathe, and the crabs rip them right off.
Green crabs are indomitable in a way that recalls villains out of fantasy fiction. They’re aggressive — it’s not uncommon for them to eat each other — with voracious appetites and no natural predators. An experiment at the University of New England in Maine found that a green crab could be deprived of oxygen for 45 minutes and then scuttle on an underwater treadmill for five minutes nonstop. A scientist I know once accidentally froze a bucket of crabs in her backyard. When the ice melted in the spring, the green crabs were still alive.
“Absolutely incredible species,” Beal says. As far as predators go, “It’s a winner.”
They’re also masters at multiplying. Since hitchhiking across the Atlantic in the ballast of a ship in 1817, they’ve spread from South Carolina all the way up to Nova Scotia. Their sheer numbers remind Beal of the orc battles in The Lord of the Rings. “When I close my eyes and think about green crabs and soft-shell clams . . . I see that Ring sequence,” he says. Fortunately, New England’s notoriously cold winters have kept the green crabs in check for the past two centuries. Adult crabs may be able to survive freezing, but juvenile crabs will die if it’s cold enough.
When I first started researching the green crab, it seemed that the serious problems had started in the past decade or so. Green crab numbers spiked in the early 2010s, raising concerns that led to a region-wide conference of scientists, clammers, and shellfish managers in Maine in 2013. In Ipswich, the Green Crab R&D Project nonprofit started researching how to cook the green crab — even publishing a cookbook — and the Town of Ipswich launched an event akin to its Chowderfest where competitors prepared dishes with the crab.
But after more digging, I was surprised to learn that the alarm about green crabs has been sounded several times before. In 1934, a Boston Globe headline read “State’s Green Crabs Gone? It’s Too Early Yet to Say” but that “clam men hope they’re rid of pest.” Only a few years later, the crabs were already back, and the Ipswich Town Report made this still-relevant prediction: “Their potential powers of destruction are tremendous. Unless they are either eradicated or definitely checked, they will prove disastrous.” Clammers planted baby clams and covered the flats in nets in the ‘50s — a particularly warm and devastating decade for clams — to coax the “comeback of the Ipswich clam which in recent years has been just about nonexistent,” according to the The Ipswich Chronicle in 1952.
In the 1970s, the federal Clean Water Act turned the tide for water pollution; for the first time in years, Damon tells me, the Ipswich River became clean enough to reopen its flats for clamming. But even with the additional flats, The New York Times noted in 1986 that the clams in Ipswich were “hand dug but becoming scarce,” and then, in 2002, that “an invasion of predatory green crabs, along with environmental pressures, have sharply reduced the number of local clams.”
The interest in green crabs waxes and wanes with the abundance and scarcity of clams, says Castonguay. That’s partly because, he suggests, the crab is an easy scapegoat to deflect attention from clammers’ role in reducing clam populations. But while there’s no current data that suss out the damage done by the clamming industry versus the green crab and other predators, Beal points out that the only massive clam declines have been associated with mild winters. Overfishing can cause individual flats to become temporarily unproductive — for instance, Jim Durney’s flat in Gloucester hasn’t had clams in years — but overall, the industry has chugged along without problems. Except when it gets warm.
“That’s really the only thing that’s going to keep green crabs in check, is the weather,” Beal says. “If next winter is a winter out of the 1930s and early 1940s, then we won’t be talking about green crabs for quite awhile.”
But that’s not likely to happen soon. Climate change is warming the Gulf of Maine — which stretches from Nova Scotia to Cape Cod — faster than 99 percent of the planet’s oceans, and the winters are warming more than other seasons. “The temperatures that we’ve got now, they’re not going to go away,” John Hagan says. “So it’s just like the 1950s, only permanent.”
Around 9 a.m. on a cool morning last August, I accompany Damon and Burridge to the flats off of Eagle Hill Landing. It’s a perfect day: mid-60s, partly cloudy, with enough breeze to keep the midges at bay. Burridge accessorizes with a baseball hat branded “Lone Shark” (the name of his lobster boat) and orange gloves; scuba boots keep his feet dry. Damon wears his waxy white high-top sneakers. He affectionately refers to Burridge, his clamming partner of 20 years, as his second wife.
We depart from the cove two hours before low tide. Entering the maze of the marsh, the skiff carries us along a thinning ribbon of water flanked by increasingly exposed mud on either side of the channel. This is where soft-shell clams like to burrow, where tides cover and uncover them twice a day, along the Ipswich River and tributaries that run through the marsh — more than 900 acres of flats that extend toward the open ocean. We’ve only motored for a few minutes when we reach Stacy’s Creek, a wide part of the channel where a handful of clammers are already at work.
I clamber out of the boat as they unload their equipment, including clam forks, mesh bags, and snow sleds for transporting the clams. They find spots to dig and get to work. In his strong Boston accent, Burridge tells me stories of the days when, as a kid, he would fish for sea worms in exchange for penny candy. Brenda Turner, clamming nearby, teaches me how to use the fork to pull clams from the sediment without breaking their shells. She reckons she’s the first full-time female Ipswich clammer, but there are several women digging these days — a change from how it used to be, Damon recalls. Now Turner’s daughter clams, and her granddaughter has learned the trade, too.
As the tide slowly recedes and piping plovers scamper around our feet, Damon expertly drives the fork into the mud and flips large patties that are full of clams sticking out the underside. He’s worried about the green crab, but not any more than he worried about it every other time. After the latest alarm in 2013, the entire estuary froze over and gave clams a brief reprieve. Besides, the clams are in a boom right now. They follow their own cycle, determined by the timing of maturation: typically around seven years of good clamming, Damon notes, followed by two to three years of empty flats.
By now, the boom has been going on for seven or eight years, so Damon anticipates a bust right around the corner. That usually means getting creative — he’s worked at Logan Airport before to make ends meet. Burridge will take on carpentry jobs. But eventually, the clams have always come back. “I’ve gone through quite a few cycles in my 43 years of doing this,” Damon says. “It’s just a miracle that it works every single time, but it does.”
In the lulls between banter, everyone works in comfortable silence. When the breeze dies, the midges are vicious, and Damon wraps his shirt around his head to protect his ears from their bites. He shows me a baby green crab he finds. “I know they’re not good for my industry,” he says. “But I’m such a softie, I can’t kill that.”
Burridge, on the other hand, crushes any green crab he comes across. I bring him the crab, and he tosses it in his mouth, bites it, and spits it out. “Salty and crunchy,” he says.
When the alarm sounded in the early 2010s, Ipswich Shellfish Constable Scott LaPreste, whose job is to enforce shellfish regulations and monitor flat closures, pushed for a state-funded bounty program that paid clammers to trap and remove green crabs. Some Ipswich clammers already had been trapping crabs for over 50 years, but the organized effort turned up impressive numbers: Within two weeks, they’d caught more than 60,000 pounds of crabs in the Ipswich River, LaPreste says. Since then, up to five Ipswich clammers have been earning 40 cents a pound to trap the crabs and dispose of them, whether by selling them as bait or dumping them in the woods.
From talking with clammers and trappers, LaPreste believes the bounty program has lowered the green crab population. “I’m convinced of it,” he tells me. “I’d like to be able to prove it, and I can’t.”
That’s because a lot of green crab reporting is anecdotal; not many people study them by choice, but rather because the crabs’ activity affects the thing they do study. For instance, Alyssa Novak, a sea-grass ecologist at Boston University, has watched green crabs destroy eelgrass beds. In hopes of getting baseline data of the crab’s population size in the Great Marsh — the sprawling 25,000-acre marsh that includes Ipswich and stretches from New Hampshire to Gloucester — she and a colleague started putting out traps in 2014. That summer, they caught over 500 crabs per trap in a 24-hour period, which Novak describes as “an exorbitant amount.” The rate of crabs per trap dropped the following summer, after a freezing winter, but it has been rising since then. By 2018, even with the bounty program in full swing and that cold winter, they continued to pull up 100 to 200 crabs per trap – still “too many,” Novak says.
So far, no data support the idea that trapping has had a significant impact on green crabs. But Novak wonders if trapping may have some localized benefits. Her work with eelgrass restoration involves transplanting patches of grass. If clammers are trapping nearby, she’s noticed, the grass is more successful. But, “If they are not, then I do see the green crabs running in and pulling up my transplants.” That same logic is why some of the longtime trappers intentionally trap crabs near popular clam flats. It’s possible that trapping might be useful on that small scale — fending off the enemies at the castle’s walls, so to speak.
Regardless of the amount of trapping, experts agree that there are simply too many crabs for even humans to overfish them. The crab is here to stay: “There’s nothing that we can do about the crabs,” he says. But there might be something to be done for the clams.
When a clam spawns, it releases millions of eggs into the water. The larvae swim for a few weeks, gradually getting larger until they’re heavy enough to sink onto the mud. By then, they’re only one-fourth of a millimeter long. It’ll take them about two years to reach 2 inches, the minimum legal size for harvesting, by which time they’ll be mature enough to spawn eggs of their own. The idea is that the clams have enough time to spawn at least once before they’re harvested.
Crabs start off as swimming larvae too, and they’re eight times bigger than the clams — about 2 millimeters — when they settle on the flats. The baby clams make a perfect meal. In some Maine flats, Brian Beal found that a devastating 99 percent of juvenile clams die before they reach adulthood, many of them eaten by green crabs.
Beal thinks of the crab-clam duel as more of a race. If the clams have time to grow bigger than the baby crabs, they might be more likely to survive to adulthood.
To test his theory, Beal started anchoring small boxes to flats along the Maine coastline in April 2016. The 1-foot-by-2-foot wooden frames were lined with a fine mesh to allow the clam larvae to pass through, but ideally keep the crab larvae out. That November, Beal assessed his boxes. Some had hundreds to thousands of clams; others — usually the boxes that green crabs had managed to break into — had none. It wasn’t that there weren’t clams in the water — they just weren’t surviving the crabs.
A year earlier elsewhere in Maine, a clammer set up a soft-shell clam farm with help from Manomet’s John Hagan. They scattered seed clam about the size of a pinky nail in large rectangles of mud and covered each one with a net that stayed in place year-round. Three summers later, they harvested the plots to see if the seed had survived.
The predation protection worked: The area under the net was much more thickly strewn with clams than the mud outside of it — like “night and day,” Hagan says. But there weren’t enough clams to offset the high cost of the seed clams. “The harvest wasn’t sufficient to pay back the investment you put into it,” Hagan explains.
Seeding the flats and covering them with nets, or using fences, has been done since at least the 1930s, but it hasn’t been perfected. Ipswich tried again about a decade ago with mixed results. Beal’s research suggests netting could make a huge difference for clams’ mortality, but the key lies in making it profitable, especially considering the labor required.
A few towns over from Ipswich, Gloucester is giving it a try. This past May, Shellfish Constable Pete Seminara, deputy Rebecca Visnick, and a few clammers installed 33 nets on the unproductive Durney flat in the Annisquam River. Unlike the Manomet farm, Seminara and Visnick opted not to plant expensive seed clams under the nets, but instead hope that wild spawn will settle naturally on this flat with built-in security systems. Laying down the nets without seeding clams only took about six hours; Visnick recalls being “genuinely impressed by how fast it went.” Seminara and Visnick will continue to monitor the nets for settling seed clams throughout the summer and then keep the flats closed for a few years before harvesting.
Even though Beal’s research suggests the efficacy of predator protection methods, he doesn’t see it as a permanent solution. After all, he says, “You can’t net the world.”
He has another idea: Set a maximum harvesting size limit for clams, so that the largest ones stay in the water. Lobsters have one — it was established in the 1940s in Maine, and as recently as 2007 for much of the East Coast. Unlike humans, lobsters reproduce more as they age: The bigger the lobster, the more spawn it produces, which makes it increasingly valuable for building up the population. Some early experiments by Beal suggest a similar reproductive trajectory in clams. Beal grew up clamming and has butted heads with clammers his entire science career; he’s the first to say that he doesn’t think clammers would go for such a limit. Still, “We won’t know if we don’t try,” he says. “Where we’re at is basically not trying anything new.”
For clammers, it’s risky to try something new when their living is on the line. To ever consider an upper limit, he’d need “concrete proof,” Paul Damon says. Hagan saw similar reluctance from clammers while working on the soft-shell clam farm, and he gets it. “They’re not quite sure what that change might be for them,” he says.
Damon’s an early bird. He wakes up around 4 a.m., drinks a coffee, reads the paper, and posts his clamming photos on Facebook. At 5:10 a.m., he calls the “Shellfish Tape,” a daily recorded voice mail that tells him which flats are open. The flats close often: when it rains, for red tide, and on Sundays in the summer (Damon uses that time to go to his “church” — Todd Farm Flea Market in Rowley).
When Damon started clamming, the flats were like “the Wild, Wild West,” with very few regulations. But over the years, the industry has become much more regulated. For a time, after a 200-pound-per-day limit was adopted several years back, he took to breaking the rule. He’d hide an extra bag of clams on the flats and go back for it after dark, determined to make his living as he always had.
There’s a sort of understanding that some lawlessness will happen, which is why shellfish constables patrol the flats. It’s part of the ongoing feud between fishermen and the regulations that restrict their hauls, between ensuring livelihoods now and preserving the potential for future profit. The experienced clammers understand the need to balance the two.
“You got a fine line between conservation and a paycheck,” Damon says. Some regulations successfully traverse that line; for instance, today’s 300-pound limit is much more agreeable to Damon than the prior one. He also likes the rule that doesn’t allow clammers to dig two low tides in one day. “It protects the beds, it keeps the market stable,” he says.
Sometimes the market works in such a way that’s good for both the clams and clammers. Few restaurant-goers are keen on guzzling down large clams, or “honkers,” as the clammers call them. So dealers don’t like to buy them from clammers and clammers tend to avoid them. In that way, Beal’s maximum size limit is already being indirectly imposed. Not because of an awareness that they’re actually spawning more clams for the future, but because it’s in the clammers’ best interest for that day’s catch.
“Management and fishermen don’t always speak the same language, but they all want the same thing,” Visnick says. “They want the fishing industry to be sustainable.”
At Christmas, Damon drops off a homemade calendar at my house. It has some beautiful shots of the flats at sunrise, caked in ice. October is a selfie of Damon in the marsh, grinning in a knit Patriots hat. Every year he makes these calendars and prints them out for friends and family.
“I don’t make a ton of money,” he’s told me, “but I’m rich in other ways.” He has good health, for one. But something more than that: “With what I do, there’s a connection to the earth, to the tides, the moon, it’s all together. I cherish what I do. It’s spiritual.”
Damon says he’s an environmentalist. Most clammers are; after all, the flats are their office, their second home. The beauty of the marsh is something Damon’s never taken for granted. “If we do our end of keeping our footprint clean, then it’s sustainable,” he says. “And we can do it for generations after generations after generations.”
But that outlook — that treating your environment well is enough — is rooted in the concept of boom and bust, ebb and flow. And I get it: Nearly a century of doomsday predictions later, the clam is still here. Clammers in Damon’s generation have heard the same crab alarms since they started clamming in the ‘70s, each new one just another crying wolf. Yet, relying on Mother Nature to control the green crab problem denies the reality that climate change is the wolf finally arrived. Without the saving grace of cold winters, a future awaits where crabs boom but do not bust. Already, in the towns surrounding Ipswich, the cycles have collapsed like wet mud.
I’m convinced Ipswich clams taste delicious at any restaurant in Ipswich. They’re not called Ipswich clams for nothing: The mud flats here have just the right mixture of minerals to give the clams that perfect tang. During the summer, tourists wait in long lines under the hot sun outside the iconic box-shaped Clam Box for a plate of fried clams. The locals know to call ahead, says owner Johanna Pechilis Aggelakis. Still, she adds, there’s something special about waiting for your number to be called out with your clams that were dug only hours earlier and shucked five minutes down the road.
Since longtime owner Marina “Chickie” Aggelakis and her son recently passed away, Chickie’s daughter-in-law Johanna now helms the ship; an Aggelakis has run the restaurant since the family first acquired it in the ‘80s. Pechilis Aggelakis tells me about her regulars, some for decades, others who come two or three times a week. The clammers — the heartbeat of the town, she calls them — often stop by to chat and pick up onion bags for their harvest.
Pechilis Aggelakis is worried that clams won’t be around in 50 years, that her 6-month-old daughter, Marina, won’t be able to choose whether she wants to take on the family business. “It’s a lost cause with that crab,” she says. But, “As long as there are clams, we will be open.”
Anna Gibbs is a science writer from Ipswich. She’s now based in New York City. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.