NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — The small but savory clam remains a popular item in many menu selections. There’s no “clamming up” on demand for it.
There are steamed and raw clams, bread-filled clam cakes, clam dip, “clam liquor” often called clam broth, clam chowder in its many forms including clear Rhode Island and creamy New England.
There’s also linguine and clams, Jaecheop-guk, a clear Korean soup, fabes con almejas, a clam and bean stew and, of course, fried clams, the old timer among seafood menu selections.
Never to be forgotten either are both the popular New England Clam Bake — also simply called a “clam bake” — and Rhode Island’s own original — as in reportedly created in this state — clams casino served on the half shell with breadcrumbs and bacon.
However, the rising price for this bountiful bivalve is causing indigestion among buyers, whether customers, wholesalers or restaurants.
The price of softshell clams is sky high, says Bob Mitchell, owner of Champlin’s restaurant in the Port of Galilee. No doubt, vacationers and locals alike are feeling that pinch in the pocketbook to shell out about 20% to 40% more this year for the same amount.
The Popular Clam
Softshell clam prices have risen from about $7 a pound last year to nearly $10 for the same amount this year in New England. The shortage stems from a variety of reasons ranging from too much rain making harvesting impossible to COVID-19 related labor shortages.
This shellfish, commonly known as steamers, are a go-to food for many vacationers and aficionados alike.
The taste of clams is often described as eating the smell of the ocean shore breeze — a chewy ocean shore breeze. The belly part can be like mushy pudding with grit sometimes from the sandy beds where they live.
“We run out of them all the time and need to get deliveries in every day,” said Mitchell about the unrelenting demand despite the price increases.
It hasn’t stopped restaurants from offering the recipe item in dishes or markets putting them on display on ice to entice someone’s taste buds.
Kevin Smith, a manager at Ocean Catch Seafood market in Wakefield, said, “They are still pretty darn popular. There’s been a high demand as usual and pretty much we have to get them in every day.”
Not far away at the Matunuck Oyster Bar, owner and clam harvester Perry Raso, also continues to see both the high demand and increasing prices.
“We have no shortages in getting them,” he said, noting he can get some from Rhode Island when needed, but often they come from waters north of the Ocean State.
At Aunt Carrie’s restaurant, long-time clam, seafood and hot dog restaurant at the tip of Point Judith, availability is a big issue.
Elsie Foy, owner, said that on a recent Wednesday she has ordered eight gallons of clams already taken from shells. When the order arrived only two gallons were available.
Bruce Eastman of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association offered some insight about the reasons for some shortages.
“There’s not that many steamers harvested in Rhode Island, most of them in this area are harvested north of Cape Cod through Massachusetts shorelines into Maine,” he said.
Recent red tide closures of clam beds from Massachusetts to Maine have reduced the numbers harvested and steamer harvesting areas north of Cape Cod have been affected by some closures due to excessive rainfall, he said.
“It has been a wet summer — especially July — and we Narragansett Bay shellfish harvesters have had greater than average conditional closures here,” he added.
In addition, a 2016 study found the state’s soft-shell clam yield had declined by 75 percent over the previous 40 years.
Researchers at the Downeast Institute, a marine research lab and education center, say the highest risk to these clams is predators such as the invasive green crab and milky ribbon worm, which are thriving in the Gulf of Maine.
Pick-Up in Pricing Overall
Raso started as a clam grower and harvester in Rhode Island decades ago. He said that this year prices in general are up 18% over previous years. It is still a significant increase even compared to 30 years ago.
Foy said the same. She ordered steamers by the bushel still in the shells and the price was $300 per bushel now. Earlier in the summer they were $100 to $125 for the same amount, she added.
“I told my manager not to order any more until the price comes down,” she said. In addition that same order was for eight bushels and she only received two.
She and other restaurant owners are saying the same thing about any variety of other foods as well. Roy Ring, owner of North Kingstown’s Carriage Inn listed several items.
“Clams is the least of the problems,” he said, noting he has seen significant price hikes for oil for fryers, rubber gloves, chicken wings and chicken breasts. “I can go on and on,” he added.
Foy said, noting that her prices overall have more than doubled compared to last year, said, “When a gallon of clams is going up by $20 each week, what are you to do? How many times can you eat that (price increase)?”
Raso took at different view at least about the clams. He said that rarely in the past have prices increased enough to support clam diggers.
“Maybe it’s about time we all have a higher price for clams. They’re still a bargain when the work to get them and to harvest them is tremendous,” he said.
Price increases, said Foy, have a tipping point. She is already getting more calls from customers who want to know prices and availability before they come. In addition, labor shortages have increased wait times, too.
“It’s getting tougher and tougher,” she said. “When you’re out of it, you’re out of it. When people come to any restaurant, they’ll need to come with a back-up plan for what they want.”