Coastal storms are a reality for anyone living along or near the beach. Storms can bring strong winds, destructive storm surge, and severe flooding. They can be deadly for sure. Not only for people, but for wildlife too.
The latest casualty losing a battle with Mother Nature were Atlantic surf clams. While walking along the edge of North Beach at Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, located at the entrance to New York Harbor, I found a long line of surf clams that had recently been thrown up recently on the beach by churning winter storm waves.
The shells stretched like a long pearly necklace on a sandy beach along the high tide line. Nothing was left of the bivalves except for their shells. A somewhat triangular looking exoskeleton with a smooth white surface accentuated with some yellowish growth lines.
Many were young surf clams, less than three inches long. Since surf clams are usually quick growers, it can take as little as three months to reach maturity off the New Jersey coast, these clams were probably spawned from mid- October to early November. Otherwise, Atlantic surf clams spawn from mid-July through early August.
What killed these clams? Adult surf clams seldom shift voluntarily from their comfortable sandy underwater burrows where they are content to be life-long filter feeders. Most likely it was a pair of windstorms that struck the Jersey Shore earlier in the month. Water, waves, and winds gusting over 50 mph caused high-energy undersea drama to dislodge young clams in sandy beds near the beach, just below the low tide line. Strong currents washed the clams ashore by every wave.
The bounty had provided a valuable winter meal for creatures of the coast. Scavenging gulls, crabs, or hungry fish, foxes and raccoons had quickly eaten nearly all the meat inside these bivalves.
Although not realized by many folks, Atlantic surf clams play an important role in local coastal ecology. First they are fun to find and pick up and appreciate due to their size. Surf clams are the largest clams to be found along the East Coast. They can grow over 8 inches long and six inches wide. The shells are fun to dig in the sand or bring home to paint or use as ornamental cups or containers, I use mine to hold rubber bands and paperclips.
Economically, surf clams are part of a highly profitable shellfish industry. They are harvested from fishing vessels known as dredgers in deep waters, about 100 feet, along the Continental Shelf. The clams are then shucked and sold as strips for local clam chowder, clam sandwiches, clam strips, clam juice, sauces, or sushi. Surf clams have long been known for their sweet salty flavor. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the harvesting of surf clams in New Jersey generates about $10.9 million per year in sales.
Surf clams are also used as by local fisherman as bait. They often use the meat to catch striped bass, winter cod, bluefish, blackfish, and other species. The clams tend to be really good bait after a storm, since fish will naturally be foraging for recently washed out surf clams as a meal.
Fortunately, surf clams assure their future from destructive storms and hungry sea creatures by producing lots of eggs, as many as 16 to 25 million eggs into the water. Males will fertilize eggs simultaneously and the eggs will develop into swimming larval, which soon will become a shelled seed clam, and eventually an adult surf clam to continue the cycle. Life and death all get played out while walking a winter beach near New York Harbor.