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The History of the Surf Clam Industry in New Jersey

(more specifically Point Pleasant Beach)




(First posted October 8, 1996. Update a little in Feb 2008)


After a strong Easterly storm along the coast of New Jersey, surf clams would wash up on the beach and be picked up by hand for bait and/or food. That was almost certainly happening for centuries. The bait was mainly for codfish longlines in the winter and party boats in the summer.

Mechanical harvesting initially (according to stories I heard from old timers when I was a kid) was a rake type affair with a line attached was thrown into the surf and dragged back, emptied out and repeated until enough clams were harvested or the guy just couldn't do it anymore, whichever came first.

Then probably sometime in the 30's or 40's, Surf Clams were harvested mechanically in the ocean off New Jersey. Initially small dry dredges were used (likely pretty similar to oyster dredging in the bays today) and then somebody in Cape May or Wildwood (most likely) came up with the idea of using water to hydraulically break the bottom in front of the dredge and blow the schtuff (usually when a dredge is hauled back, there is a LOT more than clams in it) back into it.

The early boats were old fishing boats with gasoline pumps on deck and fire hose connected to the dredges. They didn't have to go far from the inlet in the beginning as there were more clams in the surf line then anybody could ever use.

I probably oughtta explain about how that comes about. When a clam spawns (up to 10,000,000 "eggs" from a single clam), it floats around for up to three weeks before it sinks to the bottom to take up its lifetime residence. Well, naturally, some years there has to be an onshore breeze (or current) at the same time the spawn is ready to sink. When that happens, it's just like being pushed up against a wall, and naturally there would be large concentrations in the surf line. (Later on when I tell you about the first regulation phase, I'll give the scientific explanation from the country's "leading experts". You'll die laughing.)

Some time along in here, when the clam harvest became more dependable (and volumes soared) via the hydraulic dredges, Snow Canning Company from Pine Point, Maine got involved in the business, Snow made canned clams and a damn fine clam chowder (still does as far as I know, even though they are now owned by General Foods or Mills, one a them "General" conglomerates). Before they came to NJ, they were using soft clams and/or quahogs (we callem hard clams in NJ) from the mud flats in Maine, most likely harvested by hand at the rate of a few bushels per day per man.

When they got wind of the veritable bonanza in Cape May, it opened up a whole new vista for them. Here was an unlimited supply of DIRT CHEAP clam meat for their plant in Pine Point.

They sent a shrewd cigar smoking deal maker named Bill Kleb to Cape May to set up an operation for them. He promptly put together a bunch of old slabs, WWII surplus boats and other junks together and opened a shucking plant. Slick guy that he was, he set up a couple dummy companies and/or other devices so that everything Snow bought went through them. Snow didn't care how much it was costing them, as long as they got plentiful cheap meat. He ended up being the big cheese in the business for probably 20 years. There was little that didn't go through him in the early days of the business. You wanted to buy hose from B F Goodrich, they sent you to see Klebby. You wanted to buy a war surplus GM for power, or a pump, or .... You hadda go through Bill Cleb. You wanted to go clamming, you saw Bill Kleb.

It didn't take long for other canning companies to get into the act, (Campbells Soups, Doxee, to name a couple of the better known) but they, for the most part, didn't put together fleets, but found it cheaper put up their own shucking houses and buy from whole clams from independent boats and/or surplus meat from each other. I'm guessing that in the earliest days, the Snow fleet produced far more meat than the company could handle, and consequently sold the surplus pretty cheap just to get rid of it, which of course, encouraged others to get into the business.

As is inevitable as the market grew, the "unlimited" easy supply of clams in the surf started to peter out, the boats got bigger and began to range farther. Also as the boats moved into deeper water, the clams got a lot bigger . The "experts" (whom I'll snicker about later) claimed the off shore clams were a genetically different species, but the real reason is that the spawn concentrated over a much wider area and consequently the clams had more room/food to grow.

Sometime in the spring of 1955, a couple hunters found a bonanza of huge clams (up to 10" in length) on Barnegat Ridge (must be 60-70 miles north of Cape May), and the clam rush was on.

Virgin territory was found that covered easily 400 square miles. From 8 or10 miles north of Manasquan Inlet to below Barnegat Inlet, 25 miles to the south to maybe 15 miles offshore. And there didn't seem to be a square inch that didn't have clams. If a boat couldn't get 20 bushels in a 10 minute (or less) tow, it just kept moving until it found one that did. I've seen spots where you could get 80-100 bushel in less than 5 minutes (and I was never what you could call a high flyer).

The boats came to Manasquan Inlet (Point Pleasant Beach, my home) and in no time took over the port. In three or four hours, they could catch 300 bushels or more. It was a bonanza like no one had ever seen before. In the heyday (early 60's), there were over 80 boats in this little port. Every possible dock that could land clam boats had them. Often 5 or 6 abreast, plugging the two narrow creeks that made up most of the harbor.

On deck, it was brutal work. If two men couldn't pick and stack at least 50 bushels an hour (and handle the gear four or five tows an hour), they weren't worth powder to blow them over the rail. I calculated one time that a man could easily handle (literally by hand, it was a luxury to be able to use a shovel) over 25 tons of product in a day. 150 bushel X 90 lbs X 3 (picked, tripped in a funnel, dragged and stacked up to 10 high) X 2 (often as much trash to pick through as clams). I was a young man, in good shape and broke in on a boat (Rockaway Belle in 1960) with three men on deck (most had two) and it was 3 months before I could come off the boat at the end of the day not tired. I've seen coal miners go back to West Virginia swearing to christ they'd never go near a boat again, as long as they lived.

Many times (usually company boats) the crew would hire an extra man for $X a day (usually about a third of a full share) just to help out. There was plenty of rationalizing going on but in truth it was a shitty practice, he worked as hard as the next man, but when you need work, there's always someone to take advantage of you. The companies fucked the boats and the boats fucked the crews and sometimes the crews fucked their own.

As is to be expected in a surplus market, boat clam prices plummeted, form a high of $2.25 for a 60-65 lb bushel (about 3 1/2 cents a lb bag weight, shells and all) in 1955 to (the lowest I know of) to $0.90 for a 118 lb bushel (about 3/4 cent a lb. ) in 1960. Something like an 80% drop. Talk about hog heaven for the companies. Along in here a lot of boats dropped out of the business to go scalloping, or fishing, or .... Plenty others to take their place though.

And when you consider, a 60 lb bushel CAN yield as much as 20 lbs (or more) of pure usable clean meat, it was pretty damn cheap, even after shucking and trucking (under 20 cents a lb @2.25 a bushel to the boat and as low as a cent a lb at the worst) (I say CAN because it all depends on the shucking style. When I developed a successful shuck-at-sea operation in 1976, we got higher than 20 lbs per US bushel, while gas oven shucking and mechanical squeezing probably is down near 10. You'll never know the true yield the companies get as that is yet another closely guarded secret, a form of price control.)

Speaking of price control, let me tell you some of the ruses the companies used to keep control. I've used the term "bushel", but that's not really what the companies were talking about. A US bushel is 1 1/2 cubic feet and a US bushel of clams weighs around 60 lbs (depending on the size of the clams). And that's what the boats were getting paid for when they came to Point Pleasant in 1955.

It didn't take long for Klebby to figure out there was more than one way to skin a cat (or increase company profit per bushel). Obviously one way is to drop the boat price per bushel. Another was to make the bushel bigger (they just neglected to tell the bureau of weights and measures).

The way that was done was to increase the size of the funnel the deck hands used to pick the clams into. The way it worked was the funnels were made specifically for the clam business. A large coffee bean bag was slipped over the small end, the funnel filled with clams, the bag and funnel lifted and the clams fall into the clam bag. Funnels were pretty expensive ("These things cost us plenty boys, take good care of em."), so the clam companies supplied them (generous fellas).

Pretty soon the funnels were getting bigger ("A mistake at the funnel factory boys, just don't fill em as full, it'll work out the same.") The "funnel factory" was likely a local sheet metal shop. The next week, "Yield is down boys, gotta fill those funnels up more.". The next week, "Jesus boys, somebody out there is sending small bags, we're gonna have to cut you 20-30 bags a boat". Pretty soon the 60lb bushels got up to a pretty standard 90+lbs.

Another dandy one was Doxees in Delaware. The bags were loaded on trailer trucks, shipped to Delaware, dragged to the back of the truck and dumped into large barrels. So then you didn't get paid by the number of bags you landed, but the number of barrels that got filled. A hundred miles away, with company men taking the count. Only one boat in that fleet never got cut, and his bags averaged 118 lbs (I know because I was one of the dumb bastards on deck that filled them. It was a matter of pride "not to get cut". Talk about fools.) All the rest (12-15 boats) got cut every week, varying amounts ranging up to the hundreds of bushels.

In 1963 (if I remember right), the cage concept was born by American Clam and eventually overtook the entire industry. I suspect the various state Boards of Health had a lot to do with that. The clam bags (sisal coffee bags) were reused maybe 5 or 6 times, until the fiber rotted. Each time they would get nastier (never washed or sterilized) and I'm sure loaded with all kinds of bacteria. It was not uncommon at all for them to be loaded with maggots, especially if all the clams didn't get shook out. (You ever wanna get even with somebody, just hide a surf clam under the seat of his car. You'll get his attention after a couple days. Believe me, old fish got nothing on surf clams when it comes to aromatics.)

4' wide by 3' deep by 5' high, cages were 60 cubic feet (before bulging). The companies paid from 28 to 32 bushels. 60 divided 1 1/2 =40 US bushels. Not as bad as it was, but still pretty blatant theft.

When Riggins and Robbins (called "Friggem and Robbem" by the cognoscenti and run by "Lyin Bill" Riggins . - Note I still consider him a friend but it is what it is.) went to cages in 1972, their statements stopped using the word "bushels" and used "measures" instead. Musta been a lawyer in the office one day.

The fucking didn't stop with the cages. You had to tie a tag with the boat name on each cage, then somehow on the ride from the dock to the shucking house (usually 100+ miles), somehow each cage would lose 3 or 4 bushel. "Goddam, boys I just don't know what happened. Each cage is short, I'm afraid I'm gonna have to cut you. Hate like hell to do it but I just gotta." And we'd heap the damn cages up some more.

Incidentally, except for Snow, nearly all the shucking houses were located in oyster country (Port Norris on the Delaware Bay in NJ and in Delaware and Virginia). The reason being the oyster business was pretty slow but it had the infrastructure (plants and cheap experienced labor) to handle the labor intensive business of hand shucking. Later when gas oven shucking came into vogue, the plants just stayed in place.

2 or 3 major companies pretty much controlled prices to the boat as long as clams were plentiful. Up until 1976, when the whole clam market finally broke, it was clearly understood that if you were short of meat, one of the majors would sell you meat at cost, but under no circumstances were you to offer a higher boat price to attract boats. If you did, you'd find yourself cut off the next time you needed meat, or maybe your buyers would suddenly find a cheaper supplier.

The whole fleet was more or less pretty evenly divided between:

In 1976, the market finally broke and a buying panic set in. The boat price quadrupled nearly overnight (6 months) from around $3 to $12. There were two reasons for that I think.

It's quite telling in the fact that while boat prices quadrupled there was NO significant retail price increase. How can that be? Well it can be because the clam meat represented such a small percentage of the cost of the product that price fluctuation at the boat level had little effect on the final product. Where it did have an effect was on the companies' bottom line.

In years leading up to the market break in 76, the boats probably "stocked" (gross income) in the neighborhood of $60-$75,000 a year. Of course a few did better and some did worse. That was to maintain a large workboat, a really large fuel bill (around 200 gallons per day), an owner, a captain and 2 deckhands. Without getting bogged down into too many details, you can see that nobody on the boat level was making any money. It was heavy equipment and hard on the machinery, boats and men. (You can see why it was smarter for the companies to buy from independents rather than maintaining their own fleets.)

The only way we made out was to do our own welding, defer maintenance (skip railways), keep old worn-out engines, winches, etc. going long after they should have died. What it boils down to is we weren't making depreciation on our investments, and that, sir, is the very real definition of going bankrupt. Which many owners (especially small fleet owners) did, in one form or another. The only ones to survive at all were the owner-operators who generally took better care of the boats and did their own dock side work. Boot strappers.

Some time after I started shucking at sea, I had occasion to do some number crunching and I had figured out that for each $60,000 the boats got for their clams, the companies netted close to $150,000. Now that's a pretty damn good profit margin. After the government takeover of the entire fishing industry, I think that's the thing that make me the most angry. All those years we struggled, couldn't pay our bills, shorted our families, worked from week to week, the cocksuckers couldda come up with another 25 cents a bushel or something to ease the load a little. Each dollar they paid us, the took home two fifty. The mother fuckers (it's 30 years later and I'm still angry, ... amazing ain't it?).

No wonder the big companies embraced (and no doubt lobbied heavily for) the 200 mile law. I expect the scenario went something like this in some board rooms:

"We've lost control of the raw product end of the business boys. We're reduced to making a reasonable profit on our clams. The money we're paying those goddam boats rightfully belong to US. WE built this goddam market! How're we gonna get it back?"

"Well boss," say the company shyster, "the money genie's out of the bottle and there ain't no way we're gonna get her back in. Too much competition to do it on our own. Only thing we can do is get the government to build a new bottle.
"No way the little guys will be able to match our clout on the federal level. We got too much money, lawyers, lobbyists and politicians in our pockets. We'll roll right over 'em."
"We'll get the regulations designed in such a way as to force the little fellas into line or out of business. In a few years we'll be back on the gravy train, bigger and better'n ever."

(I'll probably be adding to this paper as time (and inclination) permits. Check back periodically if you're interested. October 8, 1996).

(It's now Feb 2008 and I was exactly on the money. Only thing left is a (relatively) few BIG boats, owned by only a few men (none of whom run a boat anymore if ever did, all "office" schemers swapping quotas, shuffling money), thoroughly company controlled, going broke (not making depreciation), can't pay their bills, boot strapping like the 50's & 60's only on a bigger scale, screwing the crews and each other, ...). Companies started regaining complete control again in the late 70's after the first "Management Plan" went into effect, just like the Klebbie old days. And this time they'll never lose it again. Uncle Sam (NMFS) is in their pockets, or more like partners really. Neither will acknowledge it though.

Oh, and by the way, I'm still fucking angry about it, maybe even angrier. Just in case you were wondering. And I haven't caught a clam since 1979 when I got forced out.



Dredge sizes grew from maybe a 1,000 lbs with a pretty standard 30 inch knife and a 750 gpm fire pump with 3 inch hose (in the 50's) to 60 inches in maybe a two ton dredge and pump sizes to 3000 gpm and 8' hose (in the 60's). Later on, after the fucking government stepped in, dredge sizes jumped to 200' knives in a 5 ton dredge with 5,000 gpm pumps. Some boats even have two of these monsters.

In my opinion if dredge sizes were kept to something under 4' we'd have a lot healthier industry (more boats and people working) today. But that's a whole other subject.

End of Surf Clam History


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