Gone to Shell

The commercial pursuit of clams is no joyride around the Sound.

 

Ray Bendici

Thirty years ago, I spent summer days swimming with Rick Seiden in his pool; today, I’m standing on the deck of his clam boat Louie R., watching as he and his crew prepare for an arduous day of fishing for hard-shell clams on Long Island Sound.

In the gathering predawn light, the four men—Rick, his partner Ed Turschmann and deckhands Tyler Woodward and Josh “Skeet” Kiernan—hop aboard the 45-foot vessel, coffee in hand. Just as the sun starts to peek over the horizon—they can legally fish only during daylight hours—they cast off from the dock in Port Milford and head quietly out of the harbor. Once on the Sound, the bow rises as the Louie R. accelerates to 14 knots. “It’s fast for a clam boat,” says Rick, smiling. “You don’t really need the speed while you’re fishing, but it’s nice to have on the way in at the end of the day.”

On this sunny and clear morning, they are working a 175-acre bed just east of Charles Island, which is leased from the state, as are all the other shellfish beds on the Sound—boundaries are marked with tall poles as well as by GPS. Although there is just enough of a steady wind to create an early-morning chill, it’s generally a flat sea and ideal clamming conditions, something Rick and crew don’t take for granted being on the water seven days a week. And yes, they work year-round—when the demand for clams is lower (from summer’s end through midspring, minus the weeks around Christmas), they spend much of their time moving clams from other beds they lease, such as those south of Bridgeport where the water isn’t as clean, to better beds. Since clams are filter feeders, impurities can be purged from their systems quickly; after two weeks in better water, they’re tested by the state Bureau of Aquaculture, and if deemed clean, are good for market.

Today, as soon as the boat reaches the targeted spot, a weighted dredge cage is lowered off the back of the boat and into the beds, which are only 25 to 35 feet down. The dredge is then dragged along the bottom, and with the help of a hose pumping water through it, clams are pushed into the cage—a typical dredge run lasts from five to ten minutes, depending on how full the beds are. The winch then whines, the boat shimmies and the dredge is brought up.

“You may want ear protection,” Ed says as the dredge is hoisted out of the water and a sorting machine is started. I brace myself for loud industrial-type noises, but discover he’s talking about the music that is suddenly blasting from the boat’s speakers. “Give these guys loud music and fresh water, and they’re good to go,” Rick laughs.

The dredge is swung over a stainless steel table in the stern of the boat, and its contents are dumped out. The dredge is quickly put back into the water (“You don’t want to have your dredge hanging for too long,” says Rick) while Tyler, Skeet and Ed begin picking the fresh clams from oyster shells, rocks and other bottom debris. The clams go into wire baskets, are rinsed thoroughly and then dumped into the sorter, where they are sized, counted and bagged. Anything that is not market-sized goes back into the Sound. The majority of the catch is littleneck clams, but the crew also brings up cherrystone and chowder clams. By the time the contents of the first haul are finally cleared and sorted, the dredge is full again.

The Louie R. continues in circles as the sun heads higher into the sky, the dredge brings up clams, the crew picks, the music cranks and the hours pass. Rick constantly eyes the GPS screen, navigating the boat and tracking the areas they’ve fished while making sure to stay within his beds. If it all seems like an endless loop of repetition, that’s exactly what it is. “Boring is good,” says Rick. “It means we’re safe. We’re home every night.” In contrast to the popular Discovery Channel show, Ed has dubbed their work “The Most Mundane Catch.”

And forget the grizzled ol’ salts in yellow slickers of yore—the crew members are all under 40, and often during the short breaks between dredges they check their cell phones and send text messages. Rick’s cell is constantly buzzing as he receives order requests from wholesalers and calls from boats fishing the adjacent beds.

After nine hours of steady clamming, the Louie R. has collected 130 bushels of clams—“a good day.” The boat is then scrubbed and readied for tomorrow as it heads into the harbor. The bone-weary crew rapidly off-loads the catch into a waiting wholesaler’s truck and calls it a day. They’ll be back at it in less than 13 hours.

Fifteen years of the fishing grind exacts a physical toll. “I’ve had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands,” Rick says, holding them up, “and my shoulders, knees and back are shot. I’ve had a couple of hernias.” Despite the pain and long hours, however, he says he loves being on the water and has no plans to quit. He shrugs and smiles that familiar smile I remember from those long-ago summer days. “It’s what I do.”

Gone to Shell

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