Clam digging and lobstering were the major industries when I grew up in a little town on the Jersey shore. A number of my classmates dropped out of school at age 15 and went to work with their fathers and grandfathers, either digging clams or catching lobsters. Back then it was a lucrative profession. They would work their tails off from April to October, then buy a new Cadillac and drive down to Florida for the winter. Next spring, they would come back and repeat the process.

A closeup photo of a soft clam.

Soft clam or “steamer”

There were two types of clams in our area, soft clams or “steamers” and hard clams called Quahogs. To dig soft clams, you simply walked along the beach at low tide and when you saw the “breathing” or “siphon” holes in the sand, you dug with a “clam fork,” which was just a heavy-duty pitchfork, and there were the clams.

Hard clams lived in deeper water way beyond the low tide level, and you had to rake them up with a long handled, curved-tined rake. Both of these methods were hard work.

A photo of a person's hands holding a bunch of small quohog clams.

Hard clams or quahogs.

In the 1950s, when outboard motors became popular and affordable, they developed an ingenious method of digging clams. They would hang a chicken wire rack over the stern of the boat, just behind the outboard motor, then cruise slowly through the shallows, allowing the outboard to stir up the mud. The larger clams would be thrown up into the wire mesh where they could easily be scooped up into bushel baskets and taken to market. The smaller ones would slip through the mesh and sink back to the bottom. The only problem here was that the baby “seed” clams were so light that they would float away and wash up on the beach to be eaten by the seagulls.

The state passed a law outlawing this method, known as “pumping,” but it was so much easier than digging clams that many of the clamdiggers still practiced it while trying to avoid the game warden. Within about 10 years there were so few clams left in the bay that clam digging was no longer a viable occupation. Some moved on to places where there were more clams, but most just found another way to earn a living. Now, over 50 years later, the clam population has replenished itself, and even though the lower area of town is still known as “Clam Town,” it’s mostly a bedroom community for commuters to New York.

A graphic of a Maine or New Jersey lobster on a white background.

Maine or New Jersey Lobster

The lobsters in our area were what is known as a “Maine” lobster, although they thrive from the Canadian border all the way down to North Carolina. South of there, another species (without claws) known as “Langostas” are prevalent. Lobstering was similar to clam digging, i.e. long hours, hard work but lucrative rewards during a good season. The work involved setting traps called “pots” in shallow water. Since the lobsters are carnivores, these pots were baited with cut up chicken parts or other hunks of meat, the older the better. They were hauled up every day or so to collect the catch and rebait them.

There was a state law requiring that the “carapace,” or largest part of the shell, be grown to a certain length. If the lobster was too small, known as a “short” it had to be thrown back into the water until it matures. The wily lobstermen, instead of obeying the law would simply break off the tails and claws throw the carapace overboard, getting rid of the evidence.

Another law stated that the female lobsters called “chickens” or “Chix,” when heavy with eggs, had to be thrown back. The eggs are carried on the outside of the carapace, so the lobstermen would simply break off the tails and claws, the same as with “shorts,” and toss the carapace overboard. Local restaurants were glad to buy the premature tails and claws for lobster stew and salad.

Just like the clams, the lobsters could not reproduce fast enough to keep up with human consumption, and pretty soon, they had all but disappeared from the Jersey shore. Slowly, the lobster species recovered and now can be found along the shore again, but it’s nothing like it was 50 or 60 years ago, when you could go down to the local fish market and buy a 10- or 12-pound lobster for 95 cents a pound!

It was interesting to live through the time when I could witness the transition from plenty to scarcity and back again, and view firsthand how the planet and ecology will heal itself if left alone long enough. The only question is: Will the time period be 50 years like the clams and lobsters, or 10,000 years as is estimated for global warming? The bottom line is that whenever humans go up against mother nature the score is Mother Nature: One, Humans: Zero.

Photos: courtesy of Wikipedia, lobster photo courtesy of University of Maine.