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Hot diggity: Clam flats reopen off Plum Island

Chris Krafton of Amesbury unloads sacks of clams he dug in the recently opened area. Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

NEWBURY — Like a fisherman unwilling to reveal the location of his best spot, Alec Maxon won’t say how many clams he took this day from the recently reopened Newbury clam flats.

“We’re kind of vague about it sometimes,” he said from the boat landing at nearby Newburyport’s Cashman Park. “I don’t want 100 more diggers out here. If everybody knew, we wouldn’t have many clams left.”

The Newbury resident, 49, used to be a chef at a fine-dining restaurant before joining the community of commercial clammers part time 15 years ago. He made it a full-time gig in 2013, trading long hours in a hot kitchen for “four hours in the mud.”

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This year, Maxon and other clammers have 215 additional acres in which to dig. Since 1986, the clam flats off Plum Island in the Merrimack and Plum Island rivers’ estuaries had been closed because of contamination. Earlier this year, the state Division of Marine Fisheries approved a management plan that opened the flats for commercial clammers.

“It’s the largest single employer in the community, and I’m glad we got them open,” said J. Peter Fotino, chairman of the Newbury Fish Commission. “I think it will work out well for the diggers.”

By Shellfish Constable Paul Thistlewood’s count, more than 40,000 pounds have been harvested since clamming began in early April.

“This gives people another area to dig,” said Thistlewood, a third-generation clammer who gave up digging when he became constable last year.

It is the third moderately contaminated area of clam flats opened in Greater Newburyport over the past 10 years. The state opened approximately 1,000 acres in Newburyport and Salisbury in the last decade.

Jeff Kennedy, the Division of Marine Fisheries’ regional shellfish supervisor, said it’s a reflection of the improved health of the Merrimack River, tracing back to when the Clean Water Act was strengthened in 1972.

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“It’s because of actions the cities and towns on the Merrimack [River] have instituted to stay in compliance with water quality laws,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of waste-water treatment plants that drain into the Merrimack.”

There are approximately 75 licensed commercial clammers in Newbury, and the $300 license fee includes the new area, according to Leslie Haley, town clerk. In addition, 23 out-of-town clammers have paid $400 for a specific license to dig in the recently opened flats. Clammers also pay the city of Newburyport $100 for the season to launch and land boats at Cashman Park.

Flats can be designated as grossly contaminated, where clamming is prohibited; moderately contaminated, where it is restricted; or approved.

The Newbury area is designated as moderately contaminated and open only to commercial clammers. Digging is allowed Monday through Wednesday and only in clear weather, since rain can stir up contaminants from the waste-water plants.

Clammers who dig there must load their boxes onto the truck of a master digger at Cashman Park. The master digger pays for the clams and takes them to the Shellfish Purification Plant on Plum Island for three days of cleaning before they are picked up by a wholesaler, who distributes them to retailers and restaurants.

The town of Newbury receives $2 per bin of clams — there are about 50 pounds of clams in each bin — from the newly opened flats.

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Clams taken from the area make the commercial clammer $1 per pound, 40 to 70 cents per pound less than clams taken from approved flats. On a good day, a clammer can make $400, pulling in eight bins at $50 each, Thistlewood said.

Geoff Walker, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, views clamming as a responsible use of a natural resource.

“I’m very proud of the synergy developed by the town, working with [the Division of Marine Fisheries], that was professional enough to allow us to open up such a large area,” Walker said.

Across the region, clams have been plentiful this spring. Large numbers of clammers turned up on the first days the Newbury flats were open, but in recent weeks there have been fewer.

Thistlewood predicted they’ll return as the season moves along.

One who continues to dig the flats is Maxon, who said that even selling at a reduced rate, the number of mature clams coupled with a softer surface to work on makes the area preferable.

“I like it because I do a little bit better and it doesn’t hurt my back,” he said. “This basin has a lot of clams, and I’m still looking in other areas.”

Chris Krafton of Amesbury carries sacks of clams to be sold to Bob Hittinger of Stanley Seafood. Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

How clams get from the sea to the plate

1. A licensed clammer takes a boat to a favored digging spot and waits for low tide.

2. The clammer leaves the boat and walks on the basin bottom, looking for holes, ridges, and other telltale signs that clams might be buried under the surface. Frequently using homemade or modified digging tools, the clammer digs into the bottom and collects clams, keeping those that meet the size requirement (at least 2 inches in shell length).

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3. When the tide comes in, the clammer is back in the boat, transporting clams to shore.

4. At the boat landing, the clams are given to a master digger, who puts them onto racks and transports them to a purification plant.

5. At the plant, the clams are cleaned in water for three days.

6. A licensed dealer collects the clams and brings them to a wholesale outlet, where they are sold to retailers and restaurants.

7. Pass the tartar sauce.


David Rattigan can be reached at drattigan.globe@gmail.com.