Try Your Hand (and Feet) at Clamming

Mar 23, 2018

Waterfront — If you are swimming in the bay and you bump into or stumble over a hard clam or two or three, it’s not a good idea to start scarfing up the tasty morsels figuring you have the beginnings of a clambake. There are many laws and regulations that have been put in place to make sure that folks don’t have a cavalier attitude when harvesting shellfish.

First of all, if the shellfish – clams, oysters, mussels and scallops – are growing in an area that has a stormwater outfall nearby, you might get sick if you eat them. Secondly, the species have been, and continue to be, a commercially viable crop, and you may be stealing from a licensed clam bed. And lastly, you need a license to harvest shellfish.

Although the fees are not big, the state Bureau of Shellfisheries wants its revenue. Recreational shellfish licenses are sold at many bait and tackle shops, or buy them online from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s website,

Because they are so destructive to clam and oyster beds, conch (known locally as winkles) are the only mollusks that are unregulated. They can be taken without a license, but be sure to take them from safe sites. Classification charts showing restricted and approved sites for shellfish harvesting are also available on the website. All lagoons along Barnegat Bay are restricted or condemned, possibly because of boat traffic.

It is illegal to harvest shellfish from condemned waters, even for bait purposes. It is also illegal to harvest shellfish, including surf clams, from beaches adjacent to water classified as condemned.

Shellfish harvesting is prohibited before sunrise and after sunset. It’s also prohibited on Sundays.

Harvesting shellfish on public grounds is restricted to the use of hand implements: clam rakes or your own feet and hands (treading). What this means is don’t great creative with dredges or mechanical means of harvesting.

It is also illegal to harvest shellfish from leased ground under the bay, called clam or oyster beds. These grounds are delineated by cedar tree stakes or buoys set by the leaseholder. You’ve probably wondered what those tiny trees are doing in the bay – now you know.

Trespassing on leased grounds is punishable by penalties up to $3,000 and loss of all equipment.

Recreational shellfish harvesters can take up to 150 shellfish per day. The minimum size of hard clams that may be harvested is 1½ inches in shell length. Clams less than 1½ inches must immediately be returned to the bottom from which they were taken.

Specific seasons, regulations and size limits exist for oyster beds in Great Bay and Delaware Bay, plus the Mullica, Great Egg Harbor and Tuckahoe rivers. Check with the nearest shellfish office (Nacote Creek or Delaware Bay) for these detailed regulations.

Shells taken in the process of harvesting oysters must be culled from the live oysters and returned immediately to the area from which the oysters were taken.

Now that you’ve gotten through that, there are regulations to make sure that shellfish you have legally taken from clean waters remain healthy from harvest to table.

During harvest, place the shellfish in containers such as netted bags and buckets with holes that can be submerged so seawater can circulate through them. Placing the netted bag in a floating inner tube is an easy method. Keep the bag or bucket covered with a wet cloth until shellfish can be cooled or refrigerated to keep them from drying out and heating up in the sun.

On the way home, don’t leave clams or oysters sitting in the sun. Pack them in coolers with plenty of ice packs – but not ice cubes, as melted ice water is fresh water and will kill the animals. Having the shellfish refrigerated or packed in ice packs keeps bacteria from growing.

At home, clean silt and seaweed from clams by rinsing them under cold running water, then cover with a clean, damp cloth and put in the refrigerator. They should be eaten within 48 hours.

The New Jersey Department of Health cautions that young children, pregnant women, diabetics and people with compromised immune systems should never eat shellfish raw. Cook them first by steaming, or in soups, pies or fritters.

So have a healthy summer and try your feet at clam treading — but tread carefully.

— Pat Johnson

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