The Soft-Shell Clam Mya arenaria: Biology, Fisheries, and Mariculture

Chapter 14: The Soft-Shell Clam Mya arenaria in the Gulf of Maine: Challenges, Innovations, and Opportunities for Commercial Fisheries Management

Keith S. Evans and Kathleen P. Bell


In its simplest form, a fishery is a group of people catching fish or other sea animals in a body of water. More complex definitions begin to incorporate features such as the method of fishing (e.g., gear), type or class of boat, and purpose of the activity (e.g., commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishing) (Fletcher et al. 2002). However, these conceptualizations understate the breadth of fisheries’ relationships. Fisheries include social and economic interactions among harvesters, regulators, dealers, processors, restaurants, consumers, and communities and have connections beyond particular species and locations with broader environmental systems. Accordingly, the successes and failures of wild fisheries result in far-reaching impacts, as do shocks or stressors to these fisheries from changes in the natural environment or economy. Fishery management approaches benefit from considering social, economic, and biophysical systems and their complex interactions and capacities to adapt to change (Hilborn 2007b). Expanding conceptualizations of fisheries as systems underscore the significance of interdependencies between people and natural resources. Moreover, this perspective highlights the importance of information on how fishery systems respond to change and foster new ways of understanding and managing natural populations. This chapter summarizes challenges, innovations, and opportunities for the Gulf of Maine (GOM) commercial soft-shell clam Mya arenaria fisheries to share information and insights about managing natural populations during a time of significant environmental and economic change.

The GOM soft-shell clam fisheries span coastal areas in the New England region of the United States and the Maritimes region of Canada (Figure 1). The footprint of the commercial clam fisheries extends from the intertidal areas in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia, where clams are harvested, to networks of dealers and processors that deliver soft-shell clams to restaurants and consumers. The social and cultural footprint of soft-shell clams is more extensive. Indigenous peoples throughout the GOM have long managed soft-shell clams as a food resource, and Indigenous cultural practices reflect their long-standing relationships with and knowledge of soft-shell clam resources. Steamers, fried clams, and clam bakes are part of broader established summer traditions and tourist activities in the GOM region. At the heart of the commercial fisheries are the clammers and communities who harvest and co-manage the natural resources and engage with federal and regional regulators. The low mobility of the soft-shell clam resource (once settled in clam flats) coupled with a lower barrier-to-entry (clammers need little capital to participate in the fishery as clams are harvested with hand tools) encourage community engagement with these fisheries and a sense of ownership of the local stock.