The River Man
Meet Charlie McNeil, “The Captain” of the Essex clam beds
Charlie McNeil has been clamming in Essex for forty years. He digs for soft-shell clams. The Latin name is Mya arenaria. Other names include “long necks” or “steamers” or “Essex clams.”
About 14 years ago, as he came to terms with the premature death of his wife, McNeil became a commercial clammer. He didn’t want to continue with a career that involved what he calls “a lot of person to person” interaction.
Instead, he relied on the familiarity and comfort of Essex’s clam beds to earn a living and to provide solace during that difficult time. To those around Essex, McNeil is well known as “The Captain” — a tribute to his years of experience on the river.
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Although commonly referred to as “digging,” the harvesting of clams actually requires the use a clam fork, which resembles a short-handled rake with between four and six long, rigid tines.
In the winter, The Captain often needs to dig through three to four inches of icy mud before reaching soft sand and the prized clams. At that time of year, gloves are essential. In better weather though, the gloves come off and he relies on his hands and his years of experience to gauge the size of each clam.
By law, keeping clams under two inches long is prohibited.
Holders of commercial clamming licenses in Essex can take up to 250 pounds of clams per tide. On average, a pound equals roughly 17 clams.
And, although the town of Essex no longer leases clam beds to private individuals, the colloquial place names on today’s maps reflect the leaseholders from a previous century. Names like Percy Lowe’s Acre, Cleveland’s, and Corbet’s Creek are artifacts of early generations of Essex clammers.
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Asked to explain the journey from the sand to the fryer, McNeil says, “My part is digging the clam, measuring it and bringing it to my boat.” Using his hands, he shows how gently this must be done. Soft-shell clams are fragile and he will not deliver clams with cracked or broken shells.
At the end of the day, the clammer brings his harvest to a wholesale shellfish dealer. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts licenses these dealers — there are four in Essex, three in Ipswich, and dozens in Gloucester.
The dealer checks for quality and intact shells, grades the clams by size, and dates the product. If the clams are destined for the fryer, they will subcontract the shucking. Only the dealer can sell clams to restaurants and retailers.
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McNeil is clearly very proud of the fact that Essex River clams come from flats that are completely and consistently uncontaminated. The contamination levels of all clam beds are closely monitored by the Commonwealth.
As a precaution during the summer, the clam beds are closed for five days after any rainfall of more than half an inch. This ensures that any coliform bacteria in the storm runoff have been totally purged from the shellfish.
After a heavy rain, when the beds are shut down, stores and restaurants will use clams shipped in from Maine, which might be a little less fresh (some would say less flavorful, too). Some restaurants may resort to using frozen clams from as far away as the west coast.
Despite the strict checks and measures, there are still some Massachusetts areas in use that officials consider to be contaminated. Some of these flats are drained by the Merrimack River, others are in Boston Harbor. The Captain says that “clams from these beds can be taken, but only under the supervision of a ‘master digger.’”
The master digger will pay the individual clammers and then transport the catch to a shellfish purification plant, where they’ll be subjected to three solid days of cleaning before being released to a dealer.
The cleaning process involves lowering pallets of clams into tanks of clean salt water. The water is continually recirculated and sterilized by ultraviolet light. Over the course of the three days, the clam naturally discharges any bacteria or viruses in their gut.
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Along with contamination, another major threat to the local clamming industry is the green crab. This invasive species has been in Massachusetts for over 100 years, though cold winter temperatures have historically contained the green crab’s population. But since the early days of this century, milder winters and higher sea temperatures have caused a population explosion.
Green crabs are omnivores, and a serious competitor to native fish and bird species in the local food chain. Juvenile green crabs feed on clam spat (larvae) and can eat as many as forty tiny clams in one 24-hour period. Adult green crabs can easily crack open adult soft-shell clams. McNeil emphasizes the abundance of the green crab, “If I was to throw a baited hook and a line into the water, there’d be three or four green crabs on that bait within a minute.”
The extraordinarily cold winter in 2015 dealt the green crab population a serious blow — and that summer saw an abundance of seed clams, which led to a banner year for commercial clamming in 2016. But, as the clams have rebounded, so too have the crabs.
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The Captain remains committed to the culture and traditions of clamming. He speaks passionately of the incredible sunrises and sunsets that those “on the river” are lucky enough to see. The camaraderie and banter among his fellow clammers compensates for the physical toll of digging clams.
“A commercial clammer can be dragging as much as 200 pounds back to his boat after a session,” McNeil says. “A hundred yards is a long way when you’re hauling a lot of stuff.”
“That said, work is only work when you’d rather be doing something else,” he says. And he has never let clamming actually become work. He and his fellow clammers share a deep passion and respect for the Essex River, for clamming, for nature, and for each other.
Clams are one of the few remaining foods that are harvested and processed entirely by hand. There are no factory farms. A human being has touched every individual clam three or four times. And thanks to men and women like Charlie McNeil, who are dedicated to this New England tradition, we can continue to enjoy a uniquely local bounty.
Matt Kalinowski is a photographer from Ipswich whose work has been featured in the Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, and Yankee.