Dale Parsons Talks Clams, Oysters at Tuckerton Historical Society’s Giffordtown Museum

By PAT JOHNSON | May 01, 2019
Photo by: Pat Johnson Dale Stewart Parsons shows slides of his clam aquaculture lots in Tuckerton Bay.

Tuckerton — Dale Stewart Parsons has the experience of generations behind him, being the fifth-generation bayman to sell clams and seafood from Parsons Seafood on South Green Street in Tuckerton. He has taken that historical clamming industry to new directions.

He started his talk about his aquaculture business at the Gifffordtown Schoolhouse Museum on Saturday while showing some slides of early Tuckerton clammers.

“At first they used to sell their clams to a ‘buy boat,’” said Parsons. “Clammers and oystermen would row out to the boat with their day’s catch of clams or pile of oysters.”

Later there were clam houses situated on Tuckerton Creek, – just how many, Parsons couldn’t say. His is own was the only one left. “Most just folded and gave up.”

Parsons said his great-grandfather E. Walter Parsons, Kenny Pullen Sr. and Rocky Wycoft of Tuckerton made for some “interesting chemistry” as they worked in the clam house on South Green Street. “When I was young, I would listen to the old-timers talk about clams and oysters: where they set (larvae would swim in the bay water and ‘set’ on a piece of shell, where they would then grow their own shell), where it was good conditions for them and what they ate.

“Rocky Wycoft was like a man of steel to me. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and set to clamming. He would row across Tuckerton Bay and clam and row back.”

Back in the day, Parsons clam house sold gas and cigarettes to the clammers. “It was the second Gulf station on the East Coast,” said Parsons. “At one time our clam house sold chowders (chowder clams) to Campbell’s Soup in Camden. The truck would go to the plant filled with chowders packed in burlap bags. The truck would be weighed going in and weighed going out to determine how many clams the company would pay for.

“Now when you buy a can of soup, the clams are ocean clams, but back then you could go to a store and buy a can of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chower and it most likely would have chowder clams from Tuckerton in it.”

One photo showed his grandfather Jack Parsons with Kenny Pullen, working over a sorting machine. “It had rollers on it to determine what size clam would go into the burlap bag. Then the state worried about burlap contaminating the clams with bacteria, so we started using plastic onion bags, just turned them inside out. And then the state told us to stop doing that because people were confusing clams and onions.”

As wild clam stocks began to be depleted in the 1980s, young Dale Parsons decided it was time to learn aquaculture and took a workshop on algae growing. Clams are filter feeders, and they eat algae carried to them by tides in the bay.

Around 1985, Biosphere became the first privately owned clam hatchery in New Jersey. It was located at the end of South Green Street in Tuckerton. “The owner bought the building from a church, and we started spawning clams on the altar,” said Parsons.

“From 1985 to 1990, it was the only clam hatchery around, and that’s where we got 90 percent of our clam seed to put on our lots.”

His father, also Dale Parsons, owns the clam beds in Great Bay at the end of Radio Road; son Dale has his clam beds in Little Egg Harbor Bay around the Sedge Islands.

Parsons leased Biosphere from the lawyer who lost interest in the hatchery and renovated the algae room and the larvae room. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to spawn clams. You just put them in a bucket in May and they will spawn. The hard thing is keeping the larvae alive and fed.

“The algae room has to be a sterile environment. The algae starts out in a test tube and looks like lemonade. Then it grows to fill a flask, then a 5-gallon water container, and then a 200- liter glass tube, and it turns from lemonade to the color of (dark) Guinness.”

Parsons was successful in spawning clams at the old Biosphere plant until Superstorm Sandy destroyed it in 2012. Since then he has purchased his oyster and clam larvae from Rutgers University and grows them in upwellers at Great Bay Marina.

“Oyster larvae looks just like clam larvae when it’s still swimming, about 12 hours old,” he said as he showed a video of the larvae swimming under a microscope surrounded by pieces of shell. “It needs to set. I put clam shell in a blender and then screen it to make the specific-size particle for the larvae to set on.”

Then the week-old baby oysters or clams attached to their shell particles go into an “upweller.” An upweller is a 50-gallon cylinder or bucket suspended in a framework where bay water is pumped up with all its nutrients to feed the babies. One upweller can hold and feed a million oysters, said Parsons.

“Larvae consume an amazing amount of algae,” he said. “The water looks cloudy at first inside the cylinder, and then the oysters strip the algae out of it and it’s clear coming out. The oysters grow quite quickly. They can be edible size within 18 months if conditions are good, or it could take three years if conditions are poor.”

When he had the raceways (long troughs containing oysters) at Biosphere, he could pump 1,500 gallons of water a minute over them and grow a limited number without putting them in the bay. Today he has large clam and oyster lots in Tuckerton Bay around the Middle Islands. It’s a somewhat sheltered spot where boats can get stuck in a sandbar if they don’t know the locale. Yet it still has good tidal flow, essential for growing market-size product from tiny seeds.

“Part of growing mass quantities of clams or oysters is sorting the seed,” he said. “Clams are about the size of a pea, oysters the size of a nickel when we put them on the beds. We cover them with a screen (to keep out predators), and in 18 months we vacuum them up.”

Then the baymen use an industrial sieving machine that helps them keep the product a uniform size. It’s the same kind of machine that is used to sort coffee beans or plastic polymer beads. The machine sifts out bay gunk: shell and worm casings. Parsons and his workers used to sift the clams and oysters by hand, he said. One basket of seed can hold 10,000 to 15,000 clams or oysters.

Clams don’t like to be stressed when bay temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. “The end of March to the beginning of December is when we can handle the seeds; the rest of the time is spent in harvesting.”

His clam lots are 35 to 45 square feet, and each is covered by sections of screening. How big the clams get during a growing season depends on how densely the clams are planted, he said. For instance, plant 20 clams per square foot for little necks; 10 clams per square foot and they grow to the size of top necks or cherries; put five in a square foot and in 10 years you get chowders.

The screens are important to keep crabs and cow-nosed rays from eating up the product. But the screens need to be maintained – if the weather pushes sand onto the screens, the clams can suffocate. So then the baymen have to roll up the screens and clear the sand, then put them back.

An audience member noted it was a lot of physical labor.

“We try to work at low tide, but sometimes we can be working in water chest deep,” said Parsons.

One year he experimented with planting 5,000 oyster seeds the way it is done in Virginia. He said he stuck a steel pole in the bottom of the bay, looped a rope around the pole and tied the rope to a cleat on the boat. As the boat circled the pole, he broadcast the oyster seeds and at the same time let the rope out so the circle became wider. “In 18 to 20 months they grew tremendously, and then the cow-nosed rays came and ate them up.

“In 2014 somehow I got involved with the Barnegat Bay Partnership’s shellfish working group. The EPA had set a priority to restore the environment of the bay focusing on the stormwater (runoff) issue. Steve Evert, director of the Stockton University Field Station, and I talked all the time, and we came up with the idea of an oyster reef. He wrote a proposal to the powers that be and we got a grant. Then we had to decide between using hatchery oysters or to take wild oysters from the Mullica River. We decided using hatchery oysters would be more reliable, and we didn’t want to provide a habitat for disease; sometimes when you take a wild oyster from point A to Pont B, they don’t do so well.”

Meanwhile, Rutgers University had developed a strain of oyster that is resistant to disease. It’s called the New England High Resistant line. Parsons purchased these larvae, put them in cages with clean conch or whelk shells and into the upwellers. In a few weeks the larvae had settled and began to grow – they looked like beauty marks all over the conchs. Then the cages were loaded aboard a boat and the conchs dumped onto the selected bay bottom to form the first part of the reef. Parsons chose conchs or whelks because of their size and shape —they make it harder for cow-nosed rays to eat the oysters.

Once the oyster reef idea took off, Evert had the idea to recycle oyster shells from area restaurants. “Joseph Mancini (mayor of Long Beach Township) loved the idea and gave us the use of a Long Beach truck to go to restaurants and pick up the shells twice a week. In a week or two I’ll be attaching more Rutgers oysters to the reef.”

Oysters are shaped and grow differently from clams and are not covered with screens; therefore, there is an assumed loss, said Parsons.

“It’s a shotgun approach, you take 150 bushels of shell, add 4 million larvae and 10 percent live. Then you take that 400,000 and spread them out on the reef, and if 200,000 live on the bottom, we’re happy.”

Parsons’ next task is to assist with Rutgers in its genome project using wild clams. “The water chemistry is different in each bay, and clams and oysters are regionally specific. So I’ll be finding and providing 50 wild clams (from different areas), and they’ll be genetically sequenced and cross-bred to design a clam that could speed up evolution for this area. It’s a growth study and a genetic study for this particular area – a new project being funded this year.”

A lot has happened in the local bays over Parsons’ lifetime. Wild harvesting was replaced by aquaculture, the bay was degraded by development, and brown tides almost wiped out the fishery. But the tide seems to be turning in the health of the bays.

The recent dredging of Little Egg Harbor inlet by the Army Corps of Engineers has increased the tidal flow somewhat around Parsons’ clam lots, and the clams will have more to filter feed from the water column.

Another benefit to all of Barnegat, Manahawkin, Tuckerton and Little Egg Harbor bays is the decommissioning of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Plant in Lacey Township. Parsons speculated that the heated water from the plant had kept some unwanted microorganisms alive through the winter and may have caused some unwanted events, such as the brown tides of the early 2000s when there was a mass mortality of clams. “One hundred million clams died,” he said.

“At the last meeting of the Board of Marine Water Monitoring – the monitoring that is done to keep beaches safe – I suggested they take a snapshot of the algae that is present and they looked at me with that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.”

Lastly, Parsons did answer a question about the proposed floodgates for Barnegat Inlet planned by the Army Corps. “Can you believe someone was paid to come up with that idea?” he said. “All that has to happen is for them to get stuck closed and the whole town will flood. I think the DEP should know enough to stop that.”

Parsons has been out on the bay almost every day his whole life, seen the tides come and go, the marine life swim in and out ,and has the knowledge of hundreds of baymen behind him – such as Rocky Wycoft, the man of steel, his inspiration, who rowed out to clam from Tuckerton Creek and rowed back. He is a survivor.

patjohnson@thesandpaper.net

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