Clams off Virginia’s seaside coast are healthy

May 22, 2024

By Linda Cicoira 

     Surf clams thought to be dying off about 20 years ago in the Atlantic Ocean about 45 miles east of the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay are now flourishing, according to a study made by the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University and published recently in the journal “Estuaries and Coasts.”

    This valuable species, used in clam chowder and fried clam strips, has returned, the study reported. Rutgers scientists found the population to be thriving and growing. 

      The reason “could be that environmental conditions improved” or possibly “the clams adapted,” according to the Rutgers’ website. The journal report details the characteristics of a population of healthy-size surf clams of different ages living just under the surface of the sandy ocean bottom.

      “It’s unexpected and it’s good news,” said Associate Professor Daphne Munroe, an author of the study. “They disappeared some time ago – we thought they were gone. But we found there were more clams there than we thought we were going to see. And they are flourishing.”  

     “Surf clams started disappearing from waters off the coast of Virginia in the late 1990s, affected by warming water,” Munroe said. “By the turn of the 21st century, there were too few present to justify fishing in those waters.”

    One day in 2021, Munroe received a phone call from one of her fishing partners with whom she often collaborates. 

     “He said, ‘Daphne, do you know I’ve got five boats working out of Cape Charles right now? They’re catching surf clams and we’re putting them on trucks,’” Munroe said. “And I said, ‘What is that? What are they doing? How is that possible?’”

     The clams were being taken to one of the main surf clam processing plants on the East Coast. Munroe works out of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station’s Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory in Port Norris, just around the corner from the processor.

    Munroe is an expert in the dynamics of coastal and marine ecosystems. She examined the surf clams and began making plans for a study. The Atlantic surf clam is one of the most common species of bivalves in the western Atlantic Ocean. They can live 40 years and grow their shells up to 8 or 9 inches long.

     Scientists used the New Jersey surf clam population, located in the middle of the species range from Canada to North Carolina, as a standard of comparison in the study. From the samples collected from Virginia waters, scientists recorded the ages of each surf clam shell, their size, their growth rate, and whether they contained a generous portion of meat. Tissue samples for genetic analysis were also collected.

     “The clams in the southern range are in good shape,” Munroe said. “They are still young, and growing as we would expect.”

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      The study found multiple generations of surf clams, a sign of a healthy, expanding population. Understanding the population of surf clams at the southern edge of their range can help researchers better understand shifts in the ranges of species and possible adaptation and recovery, Munroe said. Further research will investigate the possibility of mating between these species, she added.

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