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Lessons from "Working the Bays"

Lessons from "Working the Bays"

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My mind often takes me back, more than a half century, to summers spent clamming in the local back bays.  It was almost a “rite of passage” for many boys of Absecon, Galloway, Port Republic and Brigantine to work our preteen and teenage summers in this way.  Some clamming buddies have moved away, some have passed away, some still live in the area, and some still go out; but I know that we all accumulated plenty of salt water and mud in our veins!

For those not familiar with what the heck I am talking about, harvesting clams is something that has been done as long as humans have come around here; catching shellfish in the shallow back bays.  In the small time period of my experience, we all had some version of a small boat, typically a 12’ to 16’ long homemade or locally produced “garvey”, “runabout” or sometimes a very personalized design creation of various degrees of “seaworthiness”.  If you had a few more bucks to rub together, you might have had a Boston Whaler, Crosby SeaSled or some other premade fiberglass model.  Outboard motors really ran the gamut, too.  I remember one friend started with just a 1.5 hp motor, but usually they ranged from the 10 hp to the workhorse 40 hp Johnsons and Evinrudes.  Sometime the older kids or adults would whiz by with a 60-75 hp Mercury or some such thing that might as well have been a Saturn V rocket to the Moon!  These all were typically kept at rented dock spaces or sometimes crude affairs that we built ourselves on a hunk of meadow edge along Absecon Creek.

Anyway, we went out typically as the tide was going down so that we could get to our spots in the bay, work through the low tide and half way back up toward high tide again.  So, mid-tide to mid-tide gave us about a six hour work window, but with the travel, clam counting, cleanup, etc. it was easily 8 plus hours.  You could even stretch the mid-tide on both ends if you were willing to “dunk” a bit or find a generally shallower clamming spot as the tide would rise.  Of course, if the times of day worked out, we would even stay out to catch two tides or even stay out overnight for the glorious feeling of coming in with the boat laden low with thousands of clams !  Because of the constant changes of the tide table, we would often get up at 3 or 4 in the morning to be at work as the sun came up.  On the flip side, sometimes the start would be later to the point where we would be finding our way back to Absecon Creek in the dark.  So, darkness, sandbars, brutal heat and sunburn, thunderstorms, fog, sand sharks, jellyfish, greenheads, mosquitoes, gnats, mechanical breakdowns, medical issues, etc. all made for great “character building” out in the bay!

So, we would anchor in the bay, arriving when the water depth was 3’-4’ and falling.  At low tide the water could be 1 foot deep or gone altogether, so the boats weren’t going anywhere for a while.  We would wear homemade cloth “booties”, sewn or pinned together from old rags or a special material that had little bumps on it to help us feel everything down in the mud.  We would walk backwards, sliding our feet out from side to side, searching for the feel of the clams.  Most of the time we would have a wire  bushel basket inside of a car inner tube to put the clams in.  Some of the old timers would still work from the inside of the boat, pulling up long-poled rakes or tongs repeatedly, sorting through each rough haul for clams.

There’s something to be said for staying in the boat: it was very easy to get your feet punctured or sliced open by sharp objects, broken shells, and often from the razor sharp back end and tail of the very wonderful, docile and ancient horseshoe crab!  Salt water stung, but it was a good initial treatment for wounds before some crude wrapping could be applied and then usually………….back to work. 

The camaraderie was great; fights were rare and friendships forged that would last a lifetime.  The independence was what you made of it and lessons of self-reliance were indispensable.  The work was hard, but there was a lot of fun to be had along the way as well.  We thought the money was well worth it- imagine making 12 bucks for a thousand clams in the late 50’s and early 60’s !  That rate gradually started to rise, and now I hear that a clam can be worth 25 to 50 cents each instead of the one to two cents each that we knew at dockside way back when……. Yikes!! 

Ecologically, our marauding band of clammers largely “clammed out” large areas of the bays over decades.  Concurrently, areas of Absecon Bay and elsewhere were closed to harvesting shellfish for years due to chemical and sewage pollution that was heavy up into the 1970’s.  Many clammers were hired to move clams from polluted areas to safe areas like Great Bay; where clams had the opportunity to purify themselves over time. 

Nowadays, clamming and oyster bed areas can be leased from the state of New Jersey, marked off with stakes, signs and GPS coordinates; so no one else can harvest there.  In this form of “aquaculture”, you must use approved, healthy seed clams and oysters for raising to maturity, and follow strict guidelines for sustainable maintenance of the estuarine ecology.  Or, still, with a clamming license you can still go out to someplace not leased and “catch a few”, up to a limit.  Water quality has become much better with improved sewerage services and direct pollution discharge regulations.  Thanks to research, constant monitoring and “best practices” assistance by NJDEP, US Fish and Wildlife, Rutgers University, Stockton University and others, the bays are fairly healthy.  Municipalities, homeowners, businesses and the landscaping community need to step up to reduce or eliminate runoff of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.  Next generation stormwater management and green infrastructure techniques will go a long way toward mitigating pollution, flood damage, litter and the waste of fresh water as runoff. 

Current and future “bayrats”, as we used to be called, will perhaps have a more gentle nickname if they want it; and will hopefully be more sustainably “working the bays” for many generations to come! 

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