I was hunkered down on an overturned bucket, wind whipping my face, as David Belanger rushed his worn skiff toward the 30 watery acres he leases for clam beds 20 miles north of Charleston, when we ran over a lead line. It was tied, improperly, to a buoy belonging to a dredger employed by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the Intracoastal Waterway navigable. My knees whacked the deck and I skidded, scraping the skin beneath my jeans.
I righted myself, and Belanger motored over to give the guy in the dredger’s high window an old salt’s tongue lashing. The guy yelled right back: “Go around it! There’s nothing to say we can’t have that ball there.”
It was a painful lesson in the ruthlessness of the seas, and we weren’t but a stone’s throw from shore. Indeed, shellfishermen in this South Carolina city battle everything from dredgers and jet skis to poachers and predators and the blazing sun. Nowadays, though, this aging cohort’s struggle for a living appears increasingly complicated by larger anthropogenic pressures.
As coastal development and climate change harm marine life and specifically clams, it’s likely we’ll see fewer people who are able to make a living harvesting them. Recently, die-offs in Peconic Bay scallops and Gulf oysters made news. Burrowed into the cool substrate, clams are more immune to the rising temperatures that killed Long Island scallops, but they are sensitive to other environmental changes, including decreased salinity from the type of flooding that knocked Louisiana’s oysters. And, for Charleston shellfishermen, the worrisome indicators are there. That’s much of why Belanger, arguably America’s most famous clammer, has put his business up for sale. At 65 years old and prone to heat stroke, he’s “getting sick,” he told me when we first met in January, “of everything going wrong with the ocean.”
I had stopped in to see him while reporting a sustainable seafood story featuring Mike Lata, chef-partner of Charleston’s FIG and The Ordinary. After his wholesaler bailed on him in the 2008 recession, Belanger went straight to restaurants. He met Lata, and the chef, impressed, helped popularize Clammer Dave — a brand name bequeathed by “a crackhead at the marina who oftentimes slept in his truck,” Belanger explained. Asheville’s Cúrate, New York’s Del Posto, Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm — sales to high-end restaurants took off. Clammer Dave got mentions in Bon Appétit, Wine Spectator, Vogue. In Charleston, menus started calling out his products. At FIG this past summer, a clam and corn chowder featuring his quahogs would have set you back $32. For a lowly bivalve that sells for a little more than a quarter to an oyster’s dollar, that’s upward mobility. Much of it is because Lata “told the world right away about his special shellfish,” Belanger said.
What happens to our definition of sustainability if our most sustainable seafood is having trouble sustaining itself?
We were standing amid piles of bivalves brought by subcontracted clammers to Belanger’s processing facility outside the tiny fishing town of McClellanville. While his daughter Hannah sized clams, the shellfisherman gave me an earful. Warming seas and increased predation; coastal development and attendant overuse of fertilizers and pesticides; upland development and increased freshwater runoff; the Trump administration’s dismantling of the Clean Water Act and its push for offshore drilling — “the view from waist-deep,” as he called it, was bleak.
“Wild clams disappeared about 15 years ago, the first canary to go,” he told me. “All my clams are farmed. What’s supposed to be good about clams is if they get old enough to spawn, in theory, they will seed all the little areas.” In this way, hatchery-grown farmed clams can replenish wild populations. “If your water can’t handle the babies, then they’re not going to reseed. This is such an environmentally friendly business, but it isn’t happening because of the water.”
Seafood Watch rates quahogs a best choice for the sustainable way they’re produced — especially in a place like Charleston, where rather than dredge for wild clams, a process that can damage the seabed, shellfishermen raise clams in mesh bags or under screens in bays where they are left to filter feed. But what happens to our definition of sustainability if our most sustainable seafood is having trouble sustaining itself? Belanger doesn’t believe there is such a thing anymore as sustainable seafood. The seas are too worried. And in South Carolina, where climate change skepticism holds fast, “It’s my responsibility to let people know,” he said.
Belanger doesn’t believe there is such a thing anymore as sustainable seafood. The seas are too worried.
I wasn’t sure how much of what Belanger was griping about was documented, or shared by others in his profession, but I figured I should find out. In June, I went back to Charleston to watch Belanger and clammers like Bob Baldwin, who supplies to Clammer Dave, harvest bivalves. Tall and stately, Baldwin swaddled himself: blue work shirt; Farmer John wetsuit — “It keeps the jellyfish and all the critters off me” — fisherman’s overalls; floppy boonie hat; heavy work gloves; sunglasses; and, ever since a painful round of a chemotherapeutic facial peel; a hunter’s mask. His 16-acre lease on Bulls Bay, less than 30 miles northeast of Charleston, is gridded with fiberglass poles that mark the corners of the mesh sections that cover his mollusks — 10,000 clams per screen.
“Because of the survival issues, I only do about half a million a year,” Baldwin said. “Between that and I had both my shoulders redone. My goal is to get to a million. I’m probably not going to because I’m 72, and I can’t push that hard.”
The tide was low. Baldwin reached down into the knee-high water and yanked the iron stakes that anchored a screen. His clam rake resembled a garden tool married to a bingo cage. With it, he scraped the bottom, pulling up hundreds of clams. Sloshing off the black mud, he dumped the load with a clatter into a bucket that floated inside an inner tube beside him.
It looked like hard work. Baldwin stopped to size his clams, pouring them onto nested grates. The clams big enough to rest on the top grate were littlenecks; they had taken two years to grow. The immature ones that fell through to the bottom grate were what his buyer calls “vongole,” after the Italian word for clams.
“A lot of these gourmet guys are starting to use vongole,” Belanger said when Baldwin and I delivered the harvest to him. Del Posto orders them. Cúrate takes them for almejas a la sidra. They’re a potential liability rebranded as an asset. “We like them because the longer clams are out there in the water, the more chance they have of dying,” Belanger said. “Nobody wants to raise their clams big. Clammers think they’re beautiful at that size, but the environmental forces out there are working against us.”
Does science concur? In 2011, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources completed a politically controversial report that sat for two years until The State newspaper obtained a copy and officials were forced to publish it. The report, “Climate Change Impacts to Natural Resources in South Carolina,” documented “a steady warming” of Charleston waters, citing myriad effects of this and other climate-change trends that challenge mollusk survival. Nevertheless, SCDNR researcher Peter Kingsley-Smith told me, “I am not aware of any fisheries-independent long-term data on hard clams in South Carolina that would allow us to compare trends in hard clam abundance with changes in environmental conditions, including those associated with climate change.”
SCDNR shellfish manager Ben Dyar said that his annual assessments show wild clam populations holding steady statewide. “We’re not denying anything the fishermen are saying,” Dyar concluded, “but if these guys are seeing a drop in population, it’s just that their area is not suitable for clams anymore.” In other words, he thinks it’s a localized problem. And maybe it is — a localized problem engendered by environmental and climate change.
Third-generation clammer Jeff Massey runs Livingston’s Bulls Bay Seafood, farming in mesh bags on a 350-acre lease just north of Baldwin’s. As he sees it, his operation is a boon to the environment. “The bottom was barren. The bags brought fish and shrimp. In low tide, birds are out there in the hundreds. Crabs are crawling all over. There’s a whole ecosystem we created. The average mature clam cleans 50 gallons of water a day. When you got 5 or 6 million, that’s a lot of water cleaned.”
But what if 4 or 5 million bite the dust? At his dockside office in McClellanville, Massey raised a beefy hand to a permit map to point out where, in 2008 and 2018, storm surges busted through the barrier island that sheltered his clams, smothering them. “Silt moves in too fast, thick, and heavy,” Massey said. “They like being buried, but not six inches under where can’t get food.”
Barrier islands are meant to breach. “They’re piles of sand anchored by vegetation. That’s the way nature designed them to behave,” said Charleston Waterkeeper Andrew Wunderley, the local activist for the international waterways conservation group. “The question is: Is that being made worse by climate change?”
Robert S. Young thinks so. The director of the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University penned an op-ed in The New York Times in October describing how rising sea levels increase storm surges, and with more frequent storms, “barrier islands no longer have enough time or sand to rebuild themselves naturally through dune formation and other processes.” It’s a situation, he warned, we could witness all along the Eastern Seaboard as climate change ramps up.
For Massey, there was another problem: “We’re also getting silt from inland. We’re caught in a slow-motion landslide here.” Bulls Bay sits just south of the Santee River, which carries engineered outflow of upriver dams. Built in the 1930s and ’40s, the dams formed lakes Marion and Moultrie. The communities that grew up around those lakes need flood protection during rainstorms. To keep shipping lanes clear in Charleston Harbor, canals direct released water northward into the Santee, where it dumps into Bulls Bay. “So all this freshwater is being diverted in directions rather than naturally where it should go,” Wunderley explained. The overflow, which decreases the salinity of the marshes into which it drains, is filled with silt and agricultural runoff. “That has consequences downstream.”
Biologist Gary Dickinson studies clams at The College of New Jersey’s Marine Ecophysiology & Biomaterials Lab, and he said that lowered salinity can be deadly to clams. “When you put low salinity plus fertilizer plus silting on top of that, that can lead to some pretty dramatic consequences,” particularly in baby clams. The shells dissolve, their mechanics fail, and the animals become susceptible to other pressures.
“When we first started farming [in 1999], we couldn’t hardly kill a clam, but we’ve been fighting it the last couple years,” Massey told me. “It’s a combination of everything. The clams are already weak because they’re fighting sand from storms coming in. They’re struggling because of salinity. Then there’s a freeze, and everything not buried dies. All winter, they need to hunker down to have a growth burst, but if all they’re doing is surviving, in spring they don’t have gas in their tank. They don’t grow as strong and then they die and predators show up, and more of them die. It’s a vicious cycle.”
I drove from Massey’s place back to my hotel in Charleston’s historic district, where puddles welling up from corner gutters were reminders of its past as a wetlands peninsula called Oyster Point. Today, Charleston Harbor is prohibited for shellfishing; it’s just too industrial. “Guys like Clammer Dave have set up close enough to serve Charleston but in waters that are not as degraded,” Wunderley said. “But as Charleston grows, it’s starting to encroach on the watershed that protects those waters from degradation.”
Driving past strip malls in suburban Mount Pleasant across the bridge from the city, I could see the sprawl radiating up the coast. Though the boom has since halved, in 2015 the Charleston area was getting 50 new residents per day. “We are developing the land so fast that the runoff is becoming toxic and reducing the productivity of the marshes,” Phil Dustan, a marine biologist at the College of Charleston, told me. He described the results of SCDNR research conducted in the 1990s: When hardscape covers 10 percent of the watershed, marshes start to change. At 20 percent, marshes’ ability to support life begins to fail. “It was 14 percent then, and it’s grown much more — in places where the effluent is stressful for the organisms, with microplastics and chemistry and everything, so we are decreasing the vitality of the nursery ground of those animals,” he said.
It’s a problem that gets too little attention, Wunderley said. “Our elected leadership is not forward-thinking. We do not have strong environmental regulations to support the waterways.”
That might be changing. While I was writing this story, I got a text from Clammer Dave: “Our hero congressman gathered a bunch of producers and recreation [clammers] to ask how climate change is affecting us. How many Republicans have done that in last 20 years? ZERO.” He included a photograph of himself with freshman Democrat Joe Cunningham. It was Cunningham who blasted an air gun in Congress to demonstrate the effects of seismic testing on marine mammals. In October, he co-sponsored the bipartisan Climate-Ready Fisheries Act, declaring, “Lowcountry fishermen are some of the hardest working people in South Carolina, and climate change has put their way of life under direct attack.”
In Charleston, it’s not too late to alter course. The estuary remains relatively healthy in comparison to more-urbanized areas. “We’re fortunate,” Wunderley said. “We’re not like New York, Boston Harbor, or the Chesapeake. We still have a shot at doing this right, but we have to think about reengineering the built environment and preserving areas not yet built upon.”
It might be too late for Belanger, though. In November, I caught up with him over the phone. “It’s time for me to do something else,” he told me. He’s hoping to find a buyer for his business, while allowing him to keep a non-participatory minority stake. It won’t be easy. “You have to like to beat Mother Nature back just one more day and get something out of that. I like all that stuff, but not everybody does.”
Then there’s the problem we had been discussing: Mother Nature is giving up the fight. “With the degradation and what’s coming, which is probably going to be much faster, I think that there’s 20 years left in this business maybe, and that’s enough to burn out a young person. They’ll be ready to quit by then.”
And Clammer Dave? Where will he be when the collapse he envisions occurs? “We’re gonna go back to the mountains of Virginia, where I last managed a cattle ranch. Raise livestock one way or another, build a little yurt community to rent out for yoga retreats. In the southwestern corner of the state at 3,000 feet in elevation. No hurricanes, no forest fires, no earthquakes, and no floods,” he said. “That’s where I want to be.”