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Surf clam stocks fall by 73 percent off N.J.

Published in the Asbury Park Press 4/18/04
Surf clam stocks near the Jersey Shore plummeted 73 percent from 2000 to last year, and warmer ocean water -- possibly from global climate change -- may be linked to the puzzling decline, observers say.

A surf clam die-off also occurred last year off the Delmarva Peninsula, from the Delaware Bay to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, but clam counts jumped 45.3 percent off Long Island from 1999 to 2002, according to observers.

Surf clams and ocean quahogs, which tend to live in deeper, colder waters and apparently have stable populations, are the key ingredients in savory clam chowder.

"It was a very stunning finding to see that these critters (surf clams) are just dying off en masse, so it will be important to go out there to find out what happened to them," said Dale B. Haidvogel, a professor of physical oceanography at Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences.

"I think the betting of the moment is . . . some sort of environmental change" is happening, Haidvogel said. "These are, of course, bottom-dwelling creatures. . . . If temperatures get too warm, they're going to be stressed and eventually die."

Historically, New Jersey has led all states in surf clam landings from state and federal waters, and the 2002 catch generated a dockside value of about $31 million, according to state officials.

Officials and experts don't know why surf clam populations have dropped. The clamming industry is concerned, and researchers are planning an industry-funded clam survey this summer to gauge populations of the temperature-sensitive animals. Any warming of the waters could be temporary or permanent, observers said.

Ed Platter, a Point Pleasant resident who captains the Lisa Kim clam boat out of Point Pleasant Beach, said he first noticed a decline in surf clams this year.

Clam stocks are not as thick as they normally are in waters up to three miles off the New Jersey coast, but there's "plenty of new growth" in federal waters beyond three miles, said Platter, who was interviewed by telephone as he was headed offshore for quahog clamming off Long Island.

New Jersey waters extend three nautical miles, or about 3.2 statute miles, off the coast. Federal waters are beyond the three-mile limit.

"The (New Jersey) fishery definitely is poor and needs to be let alone," Platter said. "Nothing's going to grow unless you leave it alone."

Declining clams

Surf clams are found from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Hatteras. Commercial concentrations are found mainly off New Jersey, the Delmarva Peninsula and on Georges Bank, and clams are dredged from the bottom, according to federal officials. Georges Bank is off New England.

Surf clams range from the beach to a depth of about 200 feet, but their abundance is low in waters deeper than about 130 feet, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Surf clams reach harvestable size in about six years. They can reach about 8.9 inches, but clams bigger than 7.9 inches are rare, the service says.

In New Jersey waters, surf clam stocks declined from 15.6 million bushels in 2000 to 4.2 million bushels last year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

That's a drop of about 73 percent.

"This is the first decline of its kind that we're aware of," according to a DEP e-mail to the Press.

In 1976, a massive bloom of algae stripped bottom waters of oxygen, killing millions of clams, sea scallops, lobsters and bottom-dwelling fish in a huge area from Long Island to Maryland. The disaster caused economic losses estimated at $573 million.

The latest decline is probably not due to a dissolved oxygen problem, DEP spokeswoman Elaine Makatura said. "Our da-ta hasn't shown" such a prob-lem.

Surf clam harvesting limits are based on estimated stocks each year, and harvests cannot ex-ceed 10 percent of the estimated stocks or more than 1 million bushels annually, according to the DEP.

The highest limit ever was 700,000 bushels a couple of years ago, the DEP said. Clam industry representatives said the limit is below 300,000 bush-els this year.

David H. Wallace of Wallace & Associates, Cambridge, Md., which represents the North At-lantic Clam Association and some independent clam boat operators and processors, said there have been no sets of young clams in New Jersey state waters for the last three or four years, "which is very unusual."

Because of that and "some fish-ing, the population has (been) reduced, but the population has been reduced faster than we have been fishing them down," said Wallace, a former clam boat owner.

"We are not really sure about the reason for (the) decline," the DEP said, adding that re-searchers were seeking an-swers.

The decline in stocks could be due to "no food supply, warmer waters shutting down respira-tion," the DEP said. No disease or bacterial problems have been identified.

"Once the cause is identified, we will be able to address a possible way to halt the de-cline," the agency said.

Industry concerns

Dan Cohen, president of Atlan-tic Cape Fisheries in Lower Township, Cape May County, and of the Point Pleasant Pack-ing clam dock in Point Pleasant Beach, said "obviously, (the clam industry is) very con-cerned that stocks have been reduced."

There was a "significant die-off" of surf clams last year in feder-al waters from Ocean City, Md., south to the Chesapeake Bay, said Cohen, a surf clammer who owns the Enterprise, a clam boat docked in Point Pleasant Beach.

The decline was unrelated to fishing because there was "no (fishing) effort" there, he said.

Meanwhile, clam stocks off Long Island, Rhode Island and Massachusetts have increased a lot, Cohen said. And the over-all clam population is "not a concern" for clam chowder, and people should not panic, he said.

Still, "New Jersey fishermen like myself have seen their catch reduced significantly in New Jersey waters," and he predicts the catch will be fur-ther reduced next year, he said.

As the industry notices chang-es from global climate change, it will have to respond by mov-ing its harvest area, Cohen said.

He said concern over clam pop-ulations is "what motivates commercial fishermen" to do-nate money, time and their ves-sels for research by academic experts and government offi-cials.

Scientists studied last year's die-off off Delmarva and found that "it was not a disease-relat-ed issue . . . probably tempera-ture-related," he said.

This summer, the National Ma-rine Fisheries Service, Rutgers University, Virginia Institute of Marine Science and the clam industry will conduct a surf clam survey in federal waters, Thomas B. Hoff, senior ecolo-gist with the Mid-Atlantic Fish-ery Management Council in Dover, Del.

The industry is providing the vessel for the survey and the vast percentage of funding.

Meanwhile, Maureen David-son, a marine biologist in the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation in East Setauket, Long Island, said a surf clam survey in 2002 showed about 18.6 million bushels of clams in New York waters compared with 12.8 mil-lion bushels in 1999.

That's a 45.3 percent increase.

"This really represents a con-tinuous increase that we've seen in population," Davidson said. "We decided that we would be able to raise the har-vest limits."

The previous limit of 500,000 bushels in state waters was in-creased to 930,000 bushels this year, she said.

"I would say . . . this is probably the highest that the annual har-vest limit has been," Davidson said.

Global warming?

A group of Rutgers and other scientists is seeking federal funds to examine the link be-tween global climate change and changes in distribution in valuable bottom-dwelling spe-cies along the mid-Atlantic.

More specifically, the research-ers want to analyze "changes in the distribution and abundance of an ecologically and commer-cially dominant species, the surfclam," their proposal says.

The concentration of heat-trap-ping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- mostly carbon di-oxide from the burning of coal, oil and gas -- has been rising.

And the Earth's surface tem-perature has risen about 1 de-gree in the past century, with accelerated warming over the past 25 years, according to fed-eral officials.

Rising global temperatures could affect human health, ani-mals and many types of ecosys-tems, according to officials.

Wallace, of Wallace & Associ-ates, said there is some specu-lation that "the real culprit" in the surf clam decline is a lack of food, "and some speculation that the lack of food is caused by the water temperature in-crease."

Predators, such as cow-nose rays, could be eating large numbers of clams, Wallace said.

Because New York has a bum-per crop of surf clams, that leads to the belief that "New Jersey was the perfect place" for them until a couple of years ago, he said.

But "the perfect place is now off the south shore of Long Island," he said. "That just leads us back to the conclusion that it's temperature-related."

"The only thing that we do know is the cause of the prob-lem is not overfishing," Wallace said.

Todd B. Bates: (732) 643-4237 or [email protected]
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