Trying to dig up new harbor image

City’s clam cultivation seeks to restore ecosystem

Scott Weston (left) of Lab Tech and Dr. Joe Buttner looked over the baby clams that will be planted. Scott Weston (left) of Lab Tech and Dr. Joe Buttner looked over the baby clams that will be planted. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / July 8, 2011

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Wellfleet is famous for oysters. Prince Edward Island made a name with mussels. Maine would not be Maine without lobster. And soon, menus will advertise a seafood with a new geographic cachet: Boston steamers.

Hyperbole? Sure.

But some in this city are preparing for a resurgence of urban clams, cultivated in dramatically cleaner water. The city’s waterfront was once so dirty that condoms regularly washed up on city beaches, earning them the nickname “Boston Harbor white fish.’’

Today, however, a team of scientists, city and state officials, and students will begin planting more than 100,000 dime-size clams in tidal flats off Thompson Island, less than a mile offshore from Dorchester.

The state Division of Marine Fisheries has seeded soft-shell clams in farther-flung parts of Boston Harbor since 2006, but today will be the first cultivation of beds within city limits.

“Several years ago we couldn’t do it there because it was so dirty, it was polluted,’’ said Mayor Thomas M. Menino. “We’ve come so far with the harbor. It used to be a source of shame. Now it’s a source of pride.’’

Protected from crabs and birds with netting, the new clam beds near Thompson Island will be off-limits to shell fishermen for at least three years. The hope is that the clams will spawn and reestablish a fertile bed where Native Americans first dug for soft-shells. Local students will monitor the progress as an experiential learning project.

But even if the project is a success, after centuries of pollution, it will take time before Boston Harbor evokes images of fresh fish and not dirty water.

Some native clams are already growing in the harbor. About 100 diggers with special licenses now harvest clams on Malibu Beach, in tidal flats off East Boston, and other locales in the city. Because of lingering contamination, however, the catch must be trucked to a state-run purification plant in Newburyport and flushed with clean saltwater, which is sterilized with ultraviolet light.

The purified clams are bought by wholesalers and supplied to fishmongers and restaurants. Few advertise the fact their customers are dipping Boston-grown steamers in butter. But maybe someday, as the Clam Box in Ipswich now brags about its native shellfish, Sully’s in South Boston will advertise locally dug clams.

“That’s what we hope,’’ said master digger Robert Stanley, a third-generation clammer who digs in Boston and runs Stanley Seafood Co. in Revere. “It’s starting to take hold.’’

The soft-shell clam population in Boston Harbor has shrunk by a third over the last decade, said Jeff Kennedy, a biologist for the state who runs the shellfish program. The exact cause of the decline is not entirely clear, he said. Pollution, over fishing, and destruction of native clam flats, have probably played a role.

The harbor’s $800,000 clam-restoration project is financed with mitigation money from an energy company to offset the impact of an underwater natural gas pipeline that runs from Salem to Weymouth.

But at its heart, the project is as much about preserving the city’s maritime identity as it is about restoring a damaged ecosystem.

“Boston is more of a clam town than anything,’’ Kennedy said. “People have been harvesting clams in the city for a long, long time. Boston and Massachusetts are identified with the water. Without that connection, we lose something.’’

The baby clams, known as spat, are spawned from native soft-shells at Cat Cove Marine Laboratory at Salem State University. Starting as plankton-size creatures, the baby clams have grown in the lab over the last five months to 12 1/2 millimeters, just smaller than a dime, said Joe Buttner, a biology professor who oversees Cat Cove.

Today, tens of thousands of seeds will be packed in a cooler and brought out on Boston Harbor. The new clam beds will be placed in a half-moon bay off the southeast shore of Thompson Island. The site is near a weathered wooden pylon believed to be the last remnant of the home built in the 1620s by David Thompson, the island’s namesake. He traded with Native Americans who came to the island to fish and dig for clams.

Organizers have designated six separate clam beds that will measure roughly 50 feet by 12 feet. At low tide, each area will be raked to remove crabs and loosen the sediment, as a farmer tills the earth before scattering seeds.

The group that will plant the clams includes high school students from Boston attending the Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center. They will simply scatter the spat by hand, with a goal of 30 clams per square foot. A net will cover the beds until late fall or early winter. By then, the clams should have almost tripled in size and burrowed safely a foot under the sand.

“This is the real world,’’ said Arthur Pearson, president of Thompson Island Outward Bound. “It’s their harbor. It’s their Boston Harbor Islands.’’

But the effort is more than a science project.

“These clams are going in with a strong possibility that they are going to be eaten, and it’s a good thing,’’ said Bruce Berman of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, an advocacy group that pushed for the nearly $5-billion Boston Harbor cleanup. “We’re putting them in Dorchester Bay.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan.

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