Some commercially fished species in Maine have seen their numbers decline in recent years due to climate change, but one of the state’s clam fisheries is growing and could help provide another way for fishermen to earn a living.
Northern quahogs, also known as hard clams, are among a handful of fisheries including Maine oysters — most of which are grown at sea farms — seaweed, and baby eels whose harvest volumes and values have increased over the past decade. Meanwhile, others including northern shrimp, softshell clams — and even the state’s still dominant lobster fishery — have shrunk.
For Mark Cota, a Topsham fisherman who grew up in Harpswell, the money in quahogs (pronounced “ko-hogs”) has been good enough that this year he started harvesting them full-time.
“I’ve done it for like four years,” Cota, 33, said Friday, chatting on the phone while raking for the clams on the tidal New Meadows River, which separates the towns of Brunswick and West Bath. “The price is right, and I’m getting good at it.”
The price fishermen get paid for their haul also has jumped markedly over the years, and not just because they are catching more. Fishermen get paid per quahog, which varies depending on how big the quahog is, but the average price per pound has gone from 40 cents per pound in the 1990s to close to or above $1.50 per pound for each of the past five years.
As recently as 2004, the value of the annual statewide harvest was valued at a little more than $10,000. In the past three years, from 2018 through 2020, the annual harvest values have gone from $2.6 million, to $3.7 million and then back to $2.6 million.
This comes at a time that the Gulf of Maine is getting warmer, which scientists say has made it less hospitable to some species and could be affecting its lobster population.
As the gulf warms, other species have been moving in. Increasing numbers of green crabs have been blamed for the decline in the state’s softshell clam population, while longfin squid are believed to be eating and chasing away northern shrimp.
Marissa McMahan, director of fisheries for the ecological research organization Manomet, said Friday there is not much historical data about the state’s quahog population, so it is hard to know for sure if more are living along the Maine coast. But many indicators suggest the shellfish is benefitting from changing conditions in the gulf.
The habitat for quahogs ranges from Maine to as far south as Florida and possibly to the Caribbean, which shows that their population likely won’t suffer if the gulf continues to get warmer, she said. They also have thicker and tougher shells than either softshell clams or mussels, which should be more resistant to predators that feast on other bivalves.
“Anecdotally what we’re hearing from harvesters is that there are more quahogs than there used to be,” McMahan said.
On a good day, Cota says he can harvest nearly 4,000 quahogs, which this year have fetched him between 30 and 40 cents each. Sometimes he’ll put in fewer hours and go home with maybe 1,500 quahogs, but usually he gets between 2,000 and 2,500 in a day’s work, he said.
In Maine, historical annual quahog harvest totals have varied greatly from one year to the next, but they have increased substantially overall since the early 2000s. Back then, harvest quantities were measured in tens of thousands of pounds. Since 2014, the state’s annual quahog haul has been close to or above 1 million pounds. In 2019, it surpassed 2 million pounds, the highest annual total ever.
There also is increasing market demand for quahogs, which means that there is more interest in harvesting them at the same time that there are more to be found, McMahan said. Outside Maine, this has led to aquaculture farmers cultivating quahogs for the seafood industry.
Smaller quahogs are more delicate, and often sell at sushi grade for higher prices, while larger quahogs are tougher, and so are usually processed to be used for chowder, she said. In addition to generally fetching a higher price, quahogs don’t spoil as quickly as softshell clams, as long as they are kept cool, and so can be shipped further distances to reach more customers.
“Quahogs can be out of the water for weeks, while softshell clams last only a few days,” McMahan said.
Manomet has been conducting research to see where quahogs are most prominent along the Maine coast, and to help local towns adopt ordinances that regulate how they are to be managed, she said.
Quahogs are mostly found in southern Maine, up to Sagadahoc county, but that is expected to change with time, she said. As waters in the gulf continue to get warmer, she said, Manomet will be able to help other towns and harvesters effectively manage local quahog populations.
“The market has a lot of potential to grow,” McMahan said.
Cota said part of the reason he decided to get out of lobstering is because of the increasing number of restrictions in that fishery that are aimed at reducing its impact on whales. Other fisheries also are facing environmental or regulatory challenges, he said, but he is more optimistic about quahogs.
“Quahogging has been pretty good, and I hope it stays that way,” he said. “I’ve seen plenty of seed [quahogs] out there. I think they’ll be around for a little while.”
Bangor Daily News writer and visual journalist Troy Bennett contributed to this report.