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Sorting Clams 9 Feet Above Deck

October 19, 2021

You’d think sorting clams on a survey is monotonous, but blogger Christine Kircun finds adventure on every trip.

Four kinds of two-shelled sea animals. The sea scallop is the largest. The two clams are displayed side by side to see the differences in shape. A cluster of broken shells are tethered to the mussel with thin strands of hairlike threads. The different kinds of shellfish caught on the clam survey. Clockwise from left: Atlantic sea scallop (Placopecten magellanicus), ocean quahog (Arctica islandica), a mussel, and Atlantic surfclam, Spisula solidissima. You can see the byssal threads (thin hair-like tethers that originate in the muscle that hold the two shells together). on the mussel wrapping around small fragments of shells. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kirkun

What’s the difference between Atlantic surfclams and ocean quahogs? I learned that while sailing on the clam survey this summer!

We sailed out of New Bedford, Massachusetts on the F/V ESS Pursuit and headed south to our first sampling station. The overall catches were fairly light, but we consistently found both surfclams and quahogs in the commercial clam dredge.

While their colors may look similar at times, quahog and surfclam shapes are very different. Quahogs have very thick shells, a sharp curve near the umbo (where the two shells connect), and tend to feel more round in your hand. Surfclams are more triangular, and the umbo isn’t as bulbous. We also caught a handful of scallops and blue mussels (or possibly horse mussels) during this trip.

This resource survey focuses on surfclams and ocean quahogs. After the catch from the dredge is dumped in the hopper, it goes over a shaker table where sand and mud is washed off. The deck crew removes any fish, rocks, and shell debris. This leaves only our target species. These then run down a long sorting belt where two people separate the surfclams from the quahogs.

On the deck of the ship, a conveyor belt is transporting clams. Two men are sorting the clams. They are dressed in casual summer clothing and wearing hats to protect them from the sun.
Scientists Dan Hennen, front, and Chad Keith, back, separating surfclams from quahogs on the sorting belt that’s about 9 feet off the ground. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

The sorting belt is about 9 feet above the deck, so you have to climb onto a metal platform in order to get to the clams. Working on the sorting belt was my favorite part because you had to climb up a ladder to get there. It was simply fun to climb something while on a moving ship. Not to mention, the ocean view from the platform is fantastic! Sometimes, I’d get up there a little early and just watch the water while waiting for the sorting to begin.

Two scientists are pictured through a doorway leading to the ondeck laboratory. A woman stands by a computer that rests on a steel counter. A man next to her is pointing at two plastic baskets in the foreground containing clams.
Scientists Nancy McHugh and Dan Hennen recording the catch information. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

As the deck crew clean out the catch on the shaker table, they may pull aside anything they find interesting. One catch of interest was a plastic water bottle covered in what looks like eggs. We were not sure what kind of eggs, but they were covered with a gelatinous material and were very soft. While the eggs were a neat find, it’s sadly not surprising to find them encrusted on yet another piece of trash. It’s just another reminder of how human activity and nature are so intimately connected, even when we don’t necessarily see it.

Two images side by side. On the left, a clear plastic bottle covered in what looks like large-grained sand. On the right, a closeup of the sand reveals that these are actually hundreds of very small, light colored eggs held together and onto the bottle by a sticky substance.
A plastic bottle covered with hundreds of small, soft eggs. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Christine Kircun

We were far enough south to end the first leg in Atlantic City, New Jersey and changed the science crew for the next leg. It was enjoyable to watch the colorful city lights at night from the ship. A view from the water is something I always try to take advantage of when given the chance.

A color photo taken at night. The center of the photograph is dominated by a weather resistant tarp tethered to a rail on the deck of the vessel. On the right, the brightly lit water front of a city.
The downtown lights of Atlantic City, New Jersey seen from the stern of the F/V ESS Pursuit. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/ Christine Kircun

Christine Kircun

2021 NEFSC Clam Survey Leg 1

Aboard the F/V ESS Pursuit

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Last updated by Northeast Fisheries Science Center on May 27, 2022