NEWBURYPORT — With Joppa Flats opened to commercial clammers for the first time in 80 years on Tuesday, the city’s shellfish constable said clammers from as far away as Saugus and Winthrop have hustled to purchase licenses.
Paul Hogg, who also serves as the city’s harbormaster, said he sold 12 permits the very first day, with another eight or so licenses expected to be sold in the next few days.
Earlier this week, the state Department of Fish and Game and the Division of Marine Fisheries announced that 250 acres of Joppa Flats in the Merrimack River estuary would be open for the commercial harvest of softshell clams by specially licensed commercial diggers.
The reopening of the Joppa Flats allows the restricted commercial harvest of softshell clams. Under the restrictions, harvesting is limited to weekdays only and must be conducted by specially licensed diggers. The clams must be treated at the DMF depuration plant on Plum Island. Harvesting for direct human consumption remains prohibited.
“It’s good. The guys are happy (commercial clammers); it’s good for the plant,” Hogg said.
Joppa Flats is a shallow, mud-bottomed section of the river, off Water Street and Plum Island Turnpike in the city’s South End. It has historically been one of the most important shellfish areas in the state. Historically, the section of Water Street in the Joppa section of Newburyport was lined with numerous “clam shacks” where harvested clams were brought to be processed. Only one of those shacks remains; it has been converted into a cottage.
Bacterial contamination concerns, caused by industrial pollutants in the river, forced the state to close the flats. Over time, improved water conditions, plus a management plan developed by the city, allowed the area to be reopened.
Clamming licenses cost $200 for nonresidents and $100 for locals, but since licenses run from January to January, the licenses sold earlier this week were prorated to $50, according to Hogg.
“We thought it would be the fairest thing for everybody,” Hogg said.
Bacterial levels will be constantly tested and in extended periods of rainfall, 0.25 inches or greater, the estuary will be closed for five to seven days. Rainfalls of 1.50 inches or greater will result in longer closures subject to re-sampling, according to the state. The contamination mainly comes from sewage treatment plants upriver that overflow during heavy rainstorms. The overflow contains untreated sewage and drainage water that flows into the plants from street drains that are connected to sewer systems in cities such as Lowell and Lawrence.
Softshell clams and other bivalve mollusks become contaminated by filtering bacteria and viruses from seawater during feeding and respiration. Contaminated shellfish can transmit these organisms to humans if the shellfish are eaten raw or undercooked.
Hogg said “no clam digging” signs located by a boat launching point inside the Joppa Flats park are there to dissuade noncommercial clammers from digging. The last thing the city wants is for a father to take his children clamming and then bringing potentially contaminated clams home for dinner.
The reopening of the flats to commercial clammers is not only a boon for the local clamming industry but for the entire estuary, Hogg said, noting that removing older clams so that more clams can grow there is the best thing for the flats. Still, Hogg said, clams remain plentiful year-round in the estuary, even better news for clammers.
The Merrimack River was once considered one of the nation’s 10 most polluted rivers. This reopening is due to concerted cleanup efforts begun more than 20 years ago by local, state and federal programs and an aggressive re-sampling initiative by DMF. The reopening encompasses over 251 acres of the southeastern portion of the Joppa Flats, while the northwest section remains closed. Joppa Flats will join some 534 acres of Merrimack River estuary clam flats in Newburyport and Salisbury that were reopened in 2006.