Just days after the news that clamming was coming back to Joppa Flat was released, Newburyport shellfish constable Paul Hogg already had sold 12 permits.
“Another eight have called and they want to get going, too,” said Hogg.
The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game and the Division of Marine Fisheries announced that 251 acres of the flat in the Merrimack River estuary will be open for the commercial harvest of soft-shell clams by licensed commercial diggers.
“It’s been 80 years since they were last opened,” said Hogg, who is also the city’s harbormaster. “This goes to show that the water’s getting cleaner.”
Master digger Bob Stanley and his crew were the first to buy permits for Joppa Flat, and the first to dig. They planned to go again this week.
“This is vital to us right now, because other areas are depleted,” said Stanley, of the family-run Stanley Seafood Co., a Revere-based wholesale distributor to restaurants and seafood retailers in New England. “They need dozens and dozens of good tests before they can classify a flat as open. Hopefully they’ll open some other local areas, too.”
The closing of the Merrimack River flats dates back to a national program that was instituted in 1925-26 because of concerns that diseases such as cholera and typhus were transmitted through the consumption of clams, according to Dave Roach, the Merrimack River biologist for the Division of Marine Fisheries. Some flats were closed even earlier in the 20th century.
But with efforts to clean up pollution and careful monitoring of bacteria levels, the division has begun to open some local beds to commercial clammers.
“It’s really begun to pay off,” Roach said.
As Hogg noted, it is good environmental and economic news, in addition to being welcomed by local diggers who can use the new harvesting spot.
The opening is for commercial clammers only, with several restrictions to assure food safety. The diggers must be licensed, can only dig on weekdays, and the clams must be treated at the Division of Marine Fisheries plant in Newburyport. At the plant, the clams undergo a cleaning process that takes two to three days.
Because rainfall can trigger episodes of bacterial contamination, the flat will also be closed to shellfishing for five to seven days after rainfalls of a quarter-inch or more, with longer closures and resampling following especially heavy rains.
The flat remains closed to recreational diggers.
“I am happy to credit the city of Newburyport and the staff of our Division of Marine Fisheries for the hard work that was necessary to open this area to commercial clammers,” Mary Griffin, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, said in a prepared statement. “Massachusetts’ soft-shell clam harvest is worth $5 million to $6 million annually, and the opening of Joppa Flat will benefit commercial shell fishermen in the area who rely on open and productive flats for their livelihood.”
Roach said reopening a flat requires taking a minimum of 30 clean samples, and frequently many more than that, as biologists determine at what levels and how long pollution effects may occur.
This is the second time flats have been opened on the Merrimack. In 2006, the state opened the Salisbury Flat, Black Rock Creek in Salisbury, and the Old Point Flat in Newburyport, a total of about 801 acres, according to Jeff Kennedy, Gloucester regional shellfish supervisor.
There have also been openings in the Pines River in Revere and Saugus, including a second area (the Seaplane Basin) that opened this fall. A flat at Point of Pines, near the mouth of that river in Revere, was opened in 2012.
In 2010, after a portion of Essex was linked to the Gloucester sewer system, the division opened a flat in the lower Castleneck River area in Ipswich and Essex on a seasonal basis, and modified the actions taken in case of rainfall elsewhere on the river, allowing more clamming on flats in Ipswich, Essex, and Gloucester.
For Stanley, whose business has spanned four generations of his family, the hope is that more flats are opened in the near future, including those in the Beverly, Salem, and Lynn harbors.
“Lynn would be nice,” he said. “There are quite a few flats in Lynn Harbor.”
Division officials would not make predictions.
“They [clammers] are forever optimists,” said Kennedy, “but when you’re talking about fecal coliform [bacteria] levels or rain events, you can never predict reopenings.”