The Great Clam Toss of 2019

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 4:45pm

On a pitch-perfect afternoon last Wednesday, May 22, staff of the Harbors Department and volunteers from the Shellfish Commission gathered at Payne’s Dock to participate in what could be called the Annual Great Salt Pond Clam Toss.

Each year the town supplements the population of wild clams in the pond with hard-shell clams imported from the mainland. Usually those clams, which are already of harvestable size, come from Connecticut, but this year the clams came from Rhode Island waters — all 30,000 of them.

Local lobsterman Jon Grant volunteers his boat and services each year for this event, but as the Linda and Laura slowly chugged its way to the dock, it became apparent that something was wrong with the boat. It wasn’t long before Grant and Shellfish Commission Chair Joe Fallon, also a lobsterman, were peering into a hatch. Mike Ernst, already in a wetsuit, and working nearby, dove in the water to inspect from below.

There was to be no quick fix. The Linda and Laura would need to be towed to the mainland and hauled out for repairs. But the clams, already unloaded from the truck onto the dock, couldn’t wait. Fallon soon retrieved his own boat, and Harbors Dept. employees Jameson Brown-Padien and Gary Ryan went off to fetch the department’s Marine Patrol Boat and the shellfish wardens’ boat.

The three smaller boats were quickly loaded with bags of clams, each color-coded as to the size of the shells, and off they went, fanning out across the Great Salt Pond to distribute them. Where they go is a well-kept secret.

The irony of this annual stocking of the pond for recreational clam-diggers hasn’t been lost on those who do it – many would and do call it preparing for a huge Easter egg hunt. A few years ago, the late Hermann “Bo” Gempp, longtime member of the Shellfish Commission, called for instituting a five-year plan for making the pond “more sustainable.” To help achieve their goals, the Shellfish Commission and Harbors Department obtained and installed an upweller under the dock at the Block Island Maritime Center to grow out tiny seed clams to a size large enough to stave off predation. Those clams are then moved out to areas of the pond where they may grow to maturity.

This will be the fourth year the upweller will be in use. Depending on water temperatures, the seed clams are placed in the upweller sometime in June and carefully tended by Head Shellfish Warden Nancy Ziomek and Harbormaster Steve Land. Land has often said the tending of the clams always attracts a lot of attention from onlookers, especially kids, making the upweller as much a valuable educational tool as a practical one.