Sea Grant Agent Champions the Louisiana Clam

Louisiana is known for its seafood. We harvest shrimp, oysters, crabs, snapper, drum, flounder, jacks, mackeral, tuna, herring and much, much more. In a state where most ocean denizens have been sampled for their palatability, there is one species that we just don’t know that much about—the southern quahog (Mercenaria campechiensis).

This large, meaty clam is similar to its northern relative Mercenaria mercenaria. Famously seen in chowders and sitting along the raw bar, northern quahogs have been a commercial staple in the Northeast for centuries.

Clams are marketed and sold according to their size – starting from littlenecks up to chowders. As they grow and become more dense, their suitability for various recipes changes. The smaller littlenecks and topnecks are steamed or eaten raw, while the larger cherrystones and chowders are used in baked dishes like clams casino or meaty chowders.

The culinary notoriety of the clam comes with a price as northern quahog populations have dwindled along the East Coast. This vacancy could provide an opportunity for the southern relative to shine at last. “I believe Louisiana is the last big reservoir of Mercenaria clams in the US,” states Rusty Gaudé, Louisiana Sea Grant and LSU AgCenter Extension agent.

Southern quahogs are not new to the market. Louisiana briefly harvested them in the 1970’s, though they were outcompeted by other states cheaper production. Nowadays, economic conditions have changed. To find a local clam bed, however, you need to talk to an oysterman. And be prepared to get wet.

Louisiana doesn’t have large tidal swings, so you can’t just walk out to exposed bed with a clam rake in hand. “You have to dive for them,” says Gaudé, “And it is tough work.”

And it isn’t just the location of the clams that is mystery. There are still major questions about the clam’s life history, size classes, abundance and population densities. “Nobody knows anything about the southern quahog,” emphasizes Gaudé, but he is on a mission to make sure that this changes.

One challenge has been changing state regulations regarding clam harvests. Clams currently aren’t targeted commercially, and were not listed as bycatch on trip tickets. So technically, you couldn’t keep them. For a year, Gaudé tirelessly attended meetings, encouraging state managers to ensure oystermen weren’t out of compliance if they collected clams as bycatch. The campaign was a success and the clams can now be kept and marketed.

Gaudé is now onto learning more about the clams themselves. His next project will be using sonar to identify clam beds and determine densities. Hopefully, with some work, Louisiana clams will hopefully be coming to Louisiana tables soon.