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Hand-grading the clams at sea.

Clam harvesting technology drives new markets

Monday 20 July 2015

Many New Zealanders have discovered and enjoyed the magic of digging into the wet sand, unearthing kai moana and taking home enough for a feed. Finding and removing pipis and cockles is one of our favourite pastimes, especially during warm summer months. Taking your limit home and drenching them in sea water so that the shellfish lose their sand before turning them into a tasty meal is almost too good to be true. Visitors from overseas are entranced by the sheer availability and accessibility of the shellfish which can happen at just about any surf beach.

Digging out the little shellfish is not as easy as it sounds and the idea that someone could find a way of beating the labour intensive process and commercially harvesting them in profitable numbers seems hard to believe. And yet it is happening. Cloudy Bay Clams is the pioneer in a fledgling industry of harvesting surf clams, a delicate but special shellfish and there is every reason to think that the fishery has enormous potential to expand.

The Marlborough-based company is owned by Isaac Piper who speaks with passion and conviction about what they do. His confidence in the product is supported both by chefs at leading New Zealand restaurants, happy to put the clams on their menus, and overseas buyers who just can't get enough of them. The company, originally named Kai Moana, was established some 24 years ago by his father Ant Piper, along with two other pioneers, Bosun Huntly and Chris Flavell.

They could see the possibilities but it was clear that while there was a mortality rate of 65-70 percent of the harvest using the common Japanese rabbit dredge the fishery could not succeed. With that level of loss the only way to sell the surf clams was direct to the consumer on the day of harvest. Isaac was a dairy farmer working in the United Kingdom but came home to help his father. He eventually bought out Ant and his partners.

The breakthrough came when Ant Piper, in conjunction with Lincoln Ventures developed a smart harvesting technology that meant the clams survived with a mortality rate at only 1 percent. The clams are harvested using an environmentally friendly "winnowing clam rake", a world first which, not surprisingly, Cloudy Bay are in the process of undergoing patent.

The technology that has been developed over a number of years uses water as a tool rather than mechanical harvesting which damaged the shellfish. It works so well that repeat harvests are possible within a few months during which time the juveniles have grown quickly. The difference is that the previous harvesting methods led to the clams, which during storm events or times of stress burrow down a metre into the sand, being bruised or dropped and then, being incredibly fragile, they would die.

Isaac says the possibilities are huge. He can see the day, within 10 years, when Cloudy Bay Clams will be harvesting 30,000 tonnes of clams and the fishery will truly be seen as a national one. Currently they are harvesting 1000 tonnes out of Cloudy Bay in Marlborough and Pegasus Bay in Canterbury and are about to begin at Foxton. On the eve of a trip to visit customers in Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore and Japan and attend the world's second-biggest seafood show, in China, Isaac says that so far they have only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

He has burned "a lot of shoe leather" building relationships with customers but is starkly aware that his limited supplies have so far prevented him from targeting the huge China market.

"Current demand is 10-15 times more than our production." To meet that demand Cloudy Bay is building another boat to add to its existing two and there will be more. Cloudy Bay is proud of its systems and processes which are designed to ensure top quality product, sustainability and food safety. When harvested the shellfish are held submerged in sea water in bulk bins on the deck of the boat with frequent exchanges of aerated water to allow them to continue natural respiration. At the processing facility the clams are placed in a single layer on perforated trays and stacked in specially designed tanks in a manner that allows uniform flow of water across them. They remain in this oxygen enhanced seawater that is drawn in from the open sea through a vast infiltration gallery, used once and returned to sea.

Both flesh and water are tested regularly for any contamination from bacterial, or bio toxin causes. The process allows them to purge sand or grit and remain in the environment with regular cleaning and care until dispatched live into local or overseas markets. The water used in the process meets strict criteria which complies with the EU and United States Food and Drug Administration requirements.

Cloudy Bay has undergone fishery and chain of custody audits and its clams now carry the Friend of the Sea international sustainability seal of approval. Isaac is conscious that his company and fishery would be closely monitored for sustainable practices - "and we won't jeopardise that".

The good news is that in 2004 the company was listing a harvest stock rate of 430g per square metre but last year this had grown to nearly 700. Isaac says the company adopts high standards and anyone who wants to query Cloudy Bay's practices is welcome to visit. The New Zealand market has grown and Isaac says it is important to him that his fellow citizens have access to the finest of clams.

"There may be higher margins from selling overseas but we need to enjoy the fruits of our labours." Isaac is not boasting when he claims that our clams are the best in the world.

"It's because we are overly meticulous on the food safety side. I'd put our clams against any in the world. We would always come out on top."

As sales grow he intends to put greater emphasis on the shellfish's country of origin because it provides so much value. Building the business has been challenging with so many obligations involving central government, local government, food safety and other demands.

He is also aware of obligations to iwi and desires to build strong relationships and ongoing open dialogue with all parties. Isaac wants this fishery to be a national success and to benefit all stakeholders, not just the quota holders, but to add value to New Zealand through a range of benefits, including employment generation, export earnings and monitoring of our coastal environment.


Cloudy Bay clam varieties

Harvested from turbulent nutrient-rich surf zones at some of our most remote beaches, the variety of clams have flavour and texture second to none.

Diamond shell

These are harvested from the three to five metre surf zone. The triangle shaped Diamond shell is full of plump meat, yielding 28-35 percent meat to shell. The clam has a beige coloured shell with a rich, deep coloured meat and white tongue.

Moon shell

Located in deeper parts of the surf zone at 5-10 metres, the mustard coloured, circular shell has a depth of flavour and firm texture like no other. It has a large mantle and frill which is best removed before eating and has a 20-25 percent meat to shell ratio.

Storm clam

Also harvested from deeper water, four to eight metres, the Storm clam has a distinctive angular shell which is white with pale straw-coloured bands. The smoother deep cupped shell holds a clam which is almost two separate parts - along pearl white tongue and a deep ochre coloured body. Meat to shell ratio is over 30 percent. Ideal for single serves.

Tua tua

From the low tide zone, two to four metres, the tua tua has a smooth clean shell and nearly 33 percent meat to shell. The shell is cream to light moss in colour. Highly regarded by Maori as a culinary delight.

Frilled venus

Very similar to Moon shell with more obvious flavour. Large angular shell with a pale blue sheen.

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