Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

A CLAMS
bountiful food source for the shell are equal in shape and
Native Americans centuries size, and the exterior is lined with
before the first Europeans a series of growth ridges (like the
arrived on the continent, clams are rings on a tree). The interior of the
now an important segment of Florida’s Buried Treasure shell is white and has two muscle
Florida’s seafood industry. Even scars (points of attachment of the
though variations in environmental muscle to the shell) connected by
and biological parameters can cause the number and an irregular line. Near the hinge are three pairs of
size of clam populations to fluctuate dramatically, grooves and complimentary ridges, called teeth.
Florida consistently ranks among the top five states in The northern quahog has a similar exterior color but
hard clam production. has a thinner, smoother shell. Additionally, its interior
may have light purple shading along the outer margin.
The shell of all clams is like a suitcase constructed
Description by the soft-bodied animal inside. A soft membrane
“Clam” is a catch-all term for a variety of bivalve, or called the mantle lines the shell and encases the animal.
two-shelled molluscs. In general, clams have two The mantle has three folds, and the outermost secretes
muscles (adductors) used to close the shell, two siphons the calcium carbonate and protein that form the hard
used to draw in or expel sea water, and a hatchet- shell. Clams have no eyes, but they respond to touch,
shaped foot used to burrow into sand or mud. The two vibrations, and chemical cues in their environment.
shells (also called valves) are hinged, held together by a Clams have a single, wedge-shaped foot that is
ligament attached to each shell; this ligament also composed of muscle tissue and is used to burrow into
works like a spring to push the shells open. Interlocking the sediments. This foot is completely developed only in
grooves help the shells fit together snugly. adult clams; very young clams have thin, string-like
filaments that temporarily anchor them in place.
The siphons, or necks, of the clam are tubes that
The Narragansett Indian word for clams can be extended or retracted in response to threats from
is “poquahock.” Early settlers abbreviated predators or to fluctuations in water quality. One siphon
it to “quahog,” a term still used today. pumps water laden with oxygen and food particles over
the gills and mantle, while the other expels filtered water
Two species of clams produce the bulk of the and waste products. Because clams are filter-feeders
commercial market in Florida: the southern quahog that readily absorb and concentrate whatever pollutants
(Mercenaria campechiensis) and the northern quahog may be in the surrounding water, they are good
(Mercenaria mercenaria). The name Mercenaria—in Latin, indicators of the overall health of a body of water.
“wages” or “reward”—refers to the fact that the clam The terms littlenecks, cherrystones, and chowders
was used historically as a form of currency by Native refer to the size of the clam. In the seafood industry, size
Americans. Campechiensis refers to the Campeche region is measured as maximum width across the closed shells.
of Mexico, where this specimen was first found and Littlenecks measure one inch to about one-and-a-half
described in the late 1800s. inches; they have especially tender meat that is often
The southern quahog, or hard shell clam, has a served on the half-shell. Chowders are the largest, at
heavy, dirty-gray to whitish oval shell. Both halves of three inches or more. Cherrystones are in between.
Inside a
hard clam
Art after R. D. Barnes, Invertebrate
Zoology, 4th edition, 1980, p. 425.

Clams may live 20 years or more, in contrast to the Southern quahogs occur from New Jersey to the
scallop, another bivalve, which has a life span of only Gulf of Mexico and are abundant on Florida’s west
12–18 months. The age of a hard clam can be determined coast, particularly in bays and estuaries. On the
by counting the rings on the cross section of the shell, Atlantic side, they are found mostly in deep water
the same way that you age a tree. Hard clams as old as offshore. In the early part of the 20th century, the Ten
50 years have been reported in North Carolina and one Thousand Islands area of southwest Florida supported
of the oldest living clams (an arctic clam) was aged at an extensive fishery of the southern hard shell clam. At
507 years. one time, these clam beds were thought to be the
largest in the world, but by 1947 the fishery collapsed,
possibly due to diversion of freshwater flows and a
massive outbreak of red tide in the area. A second
fishery developed in Charlotte Harbor during the 1960s
but was short-lived.
Clams may be found in sediments located at the
average high-tide line or under 50 feet of water; they
are most common on sand or sand-mud bottoms.
Young clams sink in bottoms that are too soft and
muddy, and excessive silt in the water can smother
them. They prefer moderately salty water but are
tolerant of a variety of salinities. In bays and estuaries,
clams are closely associated with seagrass beds, algal
Range and Habitat mats and even oyster bars, but in the Gulf of Mexico
Northern quahogs are found along the Atlantic coast they are usually found in bare sand flats. They generally
from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Nova Scotia to the inhabit areas near the mouths of bays and estuaries
Gulf of Mexico. They are abundant off Massachusetts, where tidal flows and strong currents regularly deliver
Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, especially in food and oxygen-enriched water to them and flush
Narragansett Bay and the Great South Bay of Long away waste products.
Island Sound. They are rare off west Florida, occurring Besides northern and southern quahogs, other
in isolated patches. A northern quahog fishery developed types of clams found in Florida include the marsh clam,
in the 1980s and 1990s along the east coast in the coquina, calico clam, and sunray venus clam. These
Indian River Lagoon but declined in the early 2000s and species support minor, extremely localized fisheries.
has failed to fully recover. The clam that is used most often to make the popular

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fried clam strips and clam chowder is the surf clam, northern hard shells are smaller, with a maximum
which is rare in Florida. diameter of about five inches and are not quite
as heavy.
Life History Most of the clam’s adult life is spent buried in the
sea floor. It feeds on very small plants and animals that,
Quahogs are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning suspended in sea water, are pumped into the shell
they begin life as males but often change to females. through the clam’s incurrent siphon. These particles
About half of the population will undergo this sex are collected on mucus sheets lying over the gills;
change, usually by the end of their first year. suitable food items are sifted out and delivered to the
Spawning in Florida occurs in the spring and fall, mouth, and all other particles are discharged through
when water temperatures reach about 73°F. The the excurrent siphon. Clams living in areas regularly
release of sperm into the water by male clams stimulates exposed to the air during low tides may be stunted
females to expel eggs. The union of sperm and egg is by because they are not able to feed as often.
chance. A female may spawn several times each year, Humans are only one of many predators who enjoy
producing millions of eggs. Because older females are consuming clams. Whelks, moon snails and oyster
so productive, the survival of large female clams is drills easily penetrate the clam’s armor to reach the
critical to the continued success of local stocks. tasty animal inside. Blue and stone crabs, pufferfish,
Within 12 to 14 hours, the fertilized egg hatches drums, sea trout, skates, and rays also devour clams.
into a microscopic creature called a trochophore, which Although clams can burrow deeper in the bottom when
is cylindrical and fringed with hair-like cilia. In less danger threatens, their best defense is size. The larger
than a day, this larval form transforms into a veliger, a the clam shell, the more protected it is—although even
free-swimming animal that resembles a butterfly whose the biggest clams are vulnerable to the powerful
body is wrapped in a transparent shell; it has tiny lobes crushing claws of the stone crab.
or wings that propel it through the water. The foot,
shell, and body organs begin to form during the veliger
stage, which lasts about 6 to 10 days. Economic Importance
As the tiny shell develops, the veliger drops to the The first commercial harvesting of the hard clam in
sea floor and sheds its wing-like lobes. When it touches Florida took place in the 1880s, and harvested quantities
bottom, it sends out thin filaments to hold it in place. As climbed steadily after the discovery of the 150-square-
the clam matures, a muscular foot will replace these mile “clam factory” in the Ten Thousand Islands. In
filaments, allowing the clam to bury itself in the 1931, more than a million quahogs were harvested from
sediments with only its siphons protruding. Research Florida waters, and production remained high until the
suggests that ocean acidification, through increased southwest Florida fishery collapsed in 1947 possibly
atmospheric carbon dioxide, limits the ability of larval due to diversion of freshwater flows in the Everglades
clams to harden their shell. In that weakened state, the and a massive outbreak of red tide in the area. By 1950,
clams are more susceptible to disease and predation. only 4,000 pounds of clams per year were taken from
Both southern and northern quahogs grow about this once seemingly boundless supply. A second fishery
three times faster in Florida waters than in more developed in Charlotte Harbor during the 1960s but was
northern areas. Growth is most rapid in spring and fall. short-lived.
Southern quahogs grow fastest, from a little more than Exploitation of new clam beds elsewhere in the state
a half-inch to nearly three inches in diameter in two generated harvests averaging 428,000 pounds a year
years. Northern quahogs reach three inches in diameter from 1971 through 1988. Harvests increased dramatically
in about three years. As the clams grow, they form in the mid-1980s, when a large concentration of
concentric growth ridges on the outside of their shell— quahogs was discovered in the Indian River Lagoon area
roughly one per year. Examining a cross section of the of east-central Florida. Those expansive clam beds,
shells with a high-powered microscope helps scientists particularly in Brevard County, attracted professional
determine the age of the clam. clammers from as far away as New York and Rhode
Southern quahogs may reach a maximum size of Island. The value of clams harvested in Florida in the
seven inches in diameter and a hefty six pounds; mid-1990s was estimated to be roughly $7 million; 90%

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of the harvest was from Brevard County alone. The peak minimum sizes, harvesting gear, harvesting areas, and
lasted about a decade, but has since declined to less other factors may change, so check with the Florida Fish
than one million pounds per year statewide, most which and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Division
is harvested from northern Gulf of Mexico waters. of Law Enforcement for the latest guidelines before
Harvests of clams and some other shellfish in Florida engaging in any fishing activity. You can also view the
are closely regulated by the state to protect public current saltwater fishing regulations online at
health, and areas that do not meet water-quality MyFWC.com/marine.
standards are closed to harvesting all or part of the time.
However, new techniques have enabled clammers to
collect and sell clams even from temporarily closed Research Efforts
areas. Operating per specified procedures, clammers Hard clams are a popular subject for scientific studies
either relay them (transfer the clams to cleaner waters because they are both economically valuable and
until they purge potential contaminants from their ecologically important. In the past, scientists at the
system) or depurate them (place them in special tanks FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI)
equipped with ultraviolet lights that kill any associated conducted studies to evaluate alternative methods to
pathogens). No harvest is allowed from prohibited or enhance the abundance of wild clam populations. Those
unclassified areas. Shellfish harvesting maps are alternatives included transplanting adult clams to a
available at the website for the Florida Department of concentrated area, planting seed clams in high density
Agriculture and Consumer Services. patches and directly releasing fertilized eggs into the
With the decline of the wild fishery, aquaculture has environment – all intended to increase reproductive
become the main source of Florida clams, with annual success. FWRI scientists also developed Geographic
sales exceeding $10,000,000. The major aquaculture Information System (GIS)-based maps describing areas
operations are found in the Cedar Key area, but other that are suitable for clam aquaculture but that will not
farms can be found in Tampa Bay, Pine Island Sound, interfere with harvest from naturally occurring clam
Alligator Harbor, and the Indian River Lagoon. beds. Researchers have also conducted genetic studies
Aquaculture of shellfish has been touted as one of the to evaluate the impact of hard clam aquaculture on the
most environmentally green food sources, because genetic structure of natural clam populations.
shellfish are net removers of atmospheric carbon dioxide, From an ecological perspective, scientists at FWRI
while terrestrial protein sources release 5,000 -15,000 have described the distribution and growth patterns of
kg of carbon dioxide for every kg of food produced. both the northern and southern hard clam, and their
Shellfish also do not require freshwater to drink, as natural hybrids, to determine how the two species and
terrestrial livestock do. their hybrids manage to co-occur in similar habitats.
Commercial clam fishermen work from boats and They have also described the gonadal cancer that tends
tread by foot in shallow water or use a variety of long- to be more prevalent in the hybrid clams than in either
handled rakes or tongs to sift the bottom for their quarry. of the two pure-species groups. Researchers even
In Florida, no equipment can be used to collect clams in developed a novel technique to track the larvae deriving
seagrass beds. from a hard clam population to better understand how
Recreational clammers also harvest clams, often by clams repopulate an area and what physical and
using ordinary garden rakes to probe the sand flats or by biological factors affect that redistribution. Those results
wading in shallow areas and feeling with their toes for have led to a better understanding of how marine
the hard shells hidden in the bottom. Rules governing animals disperse to occupy new habitats.

May 2017

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute
100 8th Avenue SE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701 • (727) 896-8626 • MyFWC.com/Research

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