There really is nothing like Jersey Fresh seafood right from the water. Fresh steamers or clams on the half-shell are staple summer time foods for most shore residents. And when you know exactly where the clams are raised and your seafood is harvested, it can’t be beat.
With today’s demands for high volume food production, going back to the traditional approach of hand raising and harvesting clams might seem like a step back in time. But the baymen at Heritage Shellfish Cooperative feel it’s the best way to ensure good quality products while keeping sustainability of our New Jersey bays a priority.
Based in Egg Harbor, the Heritage Shellfish Cooperative has a business model that is quite unlike those of standard businesses. The main hope of these local baymen is to work with other local seafood businesses to help each other thrive.
Quite similar to Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares you would find at a local farm, Heritage Shellfish Cooperative is selling Community Supported Fishery (CSF) seafood shares. Currently, Heritage partners with three New Jersey hosts: Beach View Farms in Manahawkin, Heirloom Kitchen in Old Bridge, and the Rutgers Farmers Market in New Brunswick. CSF shares will be picked up every other week during the season. This all starts on June 19.
In exchange for an upfront fee, participants receive fresh seafood every two weeks.
Past offerings from the pilot CSF included soft crabs, littleneck clams, oysters, thresher shark (abundant and not endangered), golden tile, fluke, albacore tuna and lobsters (twice last year). George Mathis, president of Heritage Shellfish Cooperative, is working with Gef Flimlin, a marine extension agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, to keep the biweekly pickups supplied with the freshest available catches.
Mathis explains, “You have to deal with the vagaries of the fisheries.” Since Jersey clams are available all year round, clams will fill in during the ebb and flow of seasonal catches. For example, soft crabs are typically available in June, but this year the local supplier alerted him that the catch was ready at the end of May, and has been kind of sketchy. Mathis will go further west and hopefully seek Delaware Bay soft crabs to provide the CSF with their opening season share in June. The CSF is also scheduled so they can coordinate with the Barnegat Light Viking Village longliners who work on the full moons and land large fish like tuna and shark, to source fresh product for the biweekly shares.
The prime product of Heritage Shellfish is the group’s locally raised and harvested Eventide Littleneck clams which have been selected over generations for high quality meat and fast growth. They are known for their delicate proportions and flavor, which restaurateurs have been keen to for years. Each crop of clams is raised from the spawning stage to harvest under the care of these baymen using little machinery other than their own hands, a rake, and their big earth-friendly hearts, and all year ’round! The clams are quite versatile as they can be eaten either raw or steamed, and make wonderfully delicious additions to all the favorites like linguini and clams, paella, and more.
The name Heritage wasn’t chosen lightly. According to the Coop, the word carries significant meaning. Heritage was specifically chosen because it accurately represents these families who have collectively been raising and harvesting clams on the Jersey Shore for over 120 years.
Mathis has been clamming the bay for 50 years after learning from his own father, George, Sr., who, in fact, still gets out there at 84 years old, to harvest clams.
Peter McCarthy, of Manahawkin (also with about 50 years on the bay), works with his son Mike, his right-hand man. After two tours as a U.S. Marine in Iraq, Mike came back to learn the family business and keep it going.
Even the youngest clammer of the group, Jeff Pritchard, has more than 20 years on the bay. His kids help sew the predator control screens that keep the crabs and cow-nosed rays from eating his baby clams planted in the bay bottom.
Flimlin says the name Heritage shows that this tradition “comes from the past and is handed down to future generations.” Keeping that heritage alive and maintaining responsible environmental practices in the bay is paramount. And supplying local seafood to discerning New Jerseans for many years to come is one of the group’s main goals.
Click here to find out more about Heritage Shellfish Cooperative or to purchase your share of this year’s CSF crop, or call 800-213-3329.