Clammers digging through pandemic, but shellfish are fewer

FILE -  In this Sept. 3, 2020 file photo, clamdigger Mike Soule hauls bags of clams on a sled across a mudflat in Freeport, Maine. More New Englanders have dug in the tidal mudflats during the last year, but they're finding fewer clams. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired more people in the Northeastern states to dig for the soft-shell clams. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 3, 2020 file photo, clamdigger Mike Soule hauls bags of clams on a sled across a mudflat in Freeport, Maine. More New Englanders have dug in the tidal mudflats during the last year, but they're finding fewer clams. The coronavirus pandemic has inspired more people in the Northeastern states to dig for the soft-shell clams. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

PORTLAND, Maine – Chad Coffin has spent the coronavirus pandemic much as he has the previous several decades: on the mudflats of Maine, digging for the clams that draw tourists to seafood shacks around New England.

But he's running into a problem: few clams.

“There just isn’t the clams that there used to be," Coffin said. "I don’t want to be negative, I’m just trying to be realistic.”

It's a familiar problem experienced by New England's clamdiggers. More New Englanders have dug in the tidal mudflats during the last year, but the clams aren't cooperating.

The coronavirus pandemic has inspired more people in the Northeastern states, particularly Maine and Massachusetts, to dig for soft-shell clams, which are also called “steamers” and have been used to make chowder and fried clams for generations. The era of social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic is conducive to the often solitary work, said Coffin, the president of the Maine Clammers Association, which represents commercial clammers.

But the U.S. haul of clams has dipped in recent years as the industry has contended with clam-eating predators and warming waters, and 2020 and early 2021 have been especially difficult, industry members said.

In Maine, the largest clam producing state, fishermen produced their lowest haul in more than 90 years at a little more than 1.3 million pounds in 2020. Nationwide totals aren't compiled yet, but Maine's haul typically accounts for more than half the U.S. total, and hauls in other clamming states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York have been trending downward in recent years.

The lack of clams has contributed to higher prices to consumers, said Coffin. It has also sparked fears that future generations of clams will be even smaller in number, he said.