There isn’t a Maine license plate featuring this valuable marine species, but they are only second in value to the iconic lobster fishery. They’re also one of the few species to be managed by each town along the coast, rather than by the state or by a regional or federal group. Their value is often overlooked, although there are over 1500 Mainers employed in their harvest.

The species I am referring to is soft-shell clams (Mya arenaria), or what many people call “steamer clams” because they are often eaten steamed and then dipped in butter with lemon. They’re also the clams used in the popular summertime treat of fried clams served by clam shacks all along the coast. They live in the nearshore intertidal zone in habitat range that spans as far north as Labrador, Canada to as far south as the coast of Florida. They also live in Western Europe from Norway to the Black Sea.

Brunswick town seal

Few fisheries in the state are so locally connected and easy to get a glimpse of as clam digging, and yet, for a coastal town whose town seal includes an image of a clam digger, many people in Brunswick know very little about clam harvesters. And yet, you can see many of the town’s 63 commercially licensed harvesters digging clams from shore at nearby, accessible places like Wharton Point at the bend at the end of Maquoit Road just past the high school.

At low tide, if you look out onto the flats, you’ll see people out in the mud working hard to pull up these tasty treats. They look for the tell-tale holes in the mud’s surface that are made by the clams’ siphons, which they use to pump water through their bodies as they filter out plankton to provide nutrition for their growth. Then, they pull them to the surface by hand and bag them up to be brought to shore where they are sold to dealers around town. They are one of the most local types of seafood you can get in Brunswick.

Brunswick’s shellfish resource, including soft-shell clams, is uniquely managed at the municipal level by a town committee. I have had the privilege of being part of the Brunswick Marine Resource Committee (MRC) for several years and have been part of the process for decision-making about harvest levels and the number of licenses allocated.

Brunswick’s MRC is just one of many along the coast charged with managing the town’s shellfish resources. Members of the committee include harvesters and citizens from the community who work with the Marine Patrol Officer and Coastal Resource Officer to make decisions including the number of licenses allocated each year, how much each license holder can harvest, and closures of certain areas for conservation or research purposes.


The MRC’s work with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to review and approve their recommendations, but there is a good deal of local authority over the resource. This is unique to Maine’s fisheries, particularly one that employs so many people and generates such high revenue.

The Maine DMR recently released landings data for 2021 showing that soft-shell clams ranked second in highest value at $25 million. By comparison, the lobster fishery brought in $730 million and comprised 82% of the total value of Maine fisheries. Third behind clams is the elver fishery, which brought in approximately $16 million. You can view the full statistics on the DMR’s website ( There is much more detail there about the price per pound of each species and the full ranking of all commercially harvested species.

One species that continues to move up in the ranks is hard-shell clams, or quahogs. These are the thicker-shelled clams that are found in slightly deeper water, but are also managed by the town’s MRC. This year, they brought in $3.2 million. The increase is due in part to some recent challenges to the soft-shell resource including predation by green crabs and increasing acidity of the water, all of which the quahogs weather more easily with their thicker shells.

As summer approaches and we have greater opportunities to get outside, take a moment to look out on the flats to learn a bit about this valuable harvest, and also to buy some clams from a local seafood market and enjoy them, knowing that they come right from our town’s shores.

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