Atlantic City’s Relevant Clam Industry Then and Now

With the help of former New Jersey assembly member Kirk Conover, who earlier in his life was a hard worker at Atlantic City’s commercial clams… together we will recount just how great the industry Atlantic City’s clam was relevant in the past and still is today!

For example, did you know that clams harvested during the day in Atlantic City can end up the same evening in a can of Campbell’s or Progresso clam chowder soup?

Nancy Conover added that in the 1970s and 1980s Atlantic City Clams supplied all of Howard Johnson’s clam strips.

Nancy also confirmed that Ms Snow’s was as big a buyer of Atlantic City clams as Campbell’s.

The following data provided here is from Rutgers University, which has a relationship of over 100 years with the clam and oyster industries.

Current industry size

• Around 30 to 40 producers.

• This figure rose from 40 to 60 producers in the early 1990s due to deaths, lack of price improvement and the general economic downturn.

• There are currently 5 commercial hatcheries and one terrestrial nursery system owned by Baymen.

• About 90% of clam farming takes place in Atlantic County.

Current level of production

• Estimated at $ 4 million per year, marketable clams off-ship.

• Using normal NOAA seafood economic multipliers translates into approximately $ 20 million in economic benefits for New Jersey.

• Seed production is approximately 60 to 70 million seeds plantable in the field for the state.

If Stockton University was successful in its current exploration of establishing an educational presence in marine science – fishing in the Gardner Basin of Atlantic City, there would be so much renewed potential for Atlantic City’s fishing industries.

The president of the University of Stockton, Dr. Harvey Kesselman, is very optimistic about this area of ​​study.

I read an article (can’t remember where it inspired me to write this article) that reported that in the 1940s, 240,000,000 clams a year were harvested in Atlantic City. It is mind boggling.

Let’s spend a moment together regarding the impact on the environment, alternative energies and the critical tipping point the fishing industry is currently facing.

I am a big fan of alternative energy and a (solar) practitioner of the same. But, there has to be a balance between the current goals of wind power and the fishing industries.

New Jersey has dropped the gauntlet to try to lead America in tackling climate change issues.

At the same time, the planned wind farms off the New Jersey coast feature some of the most fertile fishing grounds in the country.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a fierce battle is brewing between the fisheries and the wind industry right now.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has pledged the state to develop 7,500 megawatts of offshore wind power by 2035.

Murphy wants New Jersey to be 100% clean energy by 2050. It’s very ambitious and probably unrealistic.

The federal government is also involved in this file. They manage the auctions for the rented surfaces. The locations are in federal waters, more than three miles offshore.

The State controls the electricity contracts in this collaborative partnership.

Current plans call for three rental areas in New Jersey. The New Jersey component alone covers hundreds of thousands of acres, with several hundred wind turbines.

This network would supply millions of homes. Eight other leases have been announced between Long Island and Cape May… further offshore.

This clean energy production will come at a cost to the fishing industry. The impact on the fishing industry can be significant, how much remains to be seen.

I asked former New Jersey Coven Kirk Conover to contribute directly to this article as he has so many years of experience as a Clammer.

I have learned so much from Kirk over the past 30+ years about Atlantic City’s strong clam industry.

I really appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with Kirk on this piece.

Here are Kirk’s words:

Atlantic County has large estuaries in the back bay that are an excellent home for the eastern hardshell clam known as Mercenaria Mercenaria which we call Little Necks, Top Necks, Cherrystones, and Chowders. .

Clams are sold primarily to restaurants and consumers to be prepared for final consumption. The bays were wide open for decades, and professional baymen were gaining a middle class living on abundance.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was formed in the 1960s. There has been an epidemic of shellfish-borne disease in several southern states, none in New Jersey.

DEP then closed massive amounts of back bay water to shellfish harvesting. This included part of Reeds Bay, Absecon Bay, Lakes Bay, Scull Bay, Great Egg Harbor Bay and all of the waters behind Brigantine, Atlantic City, Ventnor, Margate and Longport.

This left a fraction of free water for the bayman to earn a living. The main clam fishing areas became Reeds Bay, Grassy Bay, Little Bay and Great Bay.

These areas were still extremely productive. Example: July 4e weekend 1970 I counted eighty boats in Little Bay, and we all caught enough clams for a payday.

Most of the clams lived in Absecon, Galloway and Port Republic.

Realizing the closures were putting too much pressure on Little Bay, two professional baymen, Rich Beckley and Richard Creama approached the DEP with a plan to open up the closed areas to harvest via a regulated transplant / relay program.
Relay lots have been established at Great Bay. If you rented a lot of relays, you could work the program. Clam fishing began in the Bay of Lakes at sunrise. You had to stop fishing at 1 p.m.

Each clam then loaded its clams onto the “state boat” for the trip to Great Bay. Program participants then met the State Boat in Great Bay and threw their clams on their lots as the boat sailed over it.

The program grew each year as the DEP realized that Lakes Bay’s productivity was far beyond what had been originally anticipated. A DEP scientist told me in 1978 that Lakes Bay had more clams per square meter than any body of water in the world.

By the end of the 1970s, the ACUA sewage plant was open and the septic systems, the source of biological pollution, were closed.

The areas that Baymen worked on as part of the transplant program became the seasonal crop during the cooler months of the year. Knowing that the transplant program would end, DEP set up a rental program at Hummock Cove, Dry Bay, to the baymen.

This allowed the lease holders to plant clam seeds and breed them to market size. This is how the few remaining professional baymen now make a living.

There are clam hatcheries in Venice Park and the northern end of Brigantine. The productivity of our open water has declined sharply since its peak in the late 1979s.

Many baymen think the water is so clean that there is not enough food for our little filter feeders. Others cite personal watercraft which attract and deplete clam spawning as damaged goods.

The glory days of Atlantic County Bays for clam fishing are behind us. Every year there are spots that get into the clams as in the past. Our hope is that these bright spots will multiply every year.


Kirk started fishing for clams when he was 14, getting his boat out of Absecon Creek. He joined the transplant program in 1975 with the help of Don Maxwell of Maxwell Shellfish. In 1978 and 1979 Kirk had 10 clams working for him on the transplant, we planted over 6 million clams a year. In 1983 Kirk obtained permission to work on the land leased from Maxwell in Great Bay, as required. This continued until 1995 when a hurricane swept through our shores and hardened the bottom.

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