With rising prices and issues with sustainability in the shellfish bait market, alternative bait is on the minds of many and propeller clams may present an effective solution to fish harvesters’ bait-based woes.

Right now, propeller clams are a popular food item in Asia, which is where Nova Scotia-based Clearwater Seafoods sells most of its product. Given the issues Atlantic Canada is having with bait right now, the people at Clearwater saw an opportunity to expand the propeller clam market in a new direction.

“We have this species that we’re harvesting that has a very specific market that’s quite tight, in terms of mostly Asia,” said Clearwater’s Director of Research and Development, John Garland.

“So, looking to spread out and find other markets for the species is something that seemed to line up with also trying it as a bait. The people we’ve been selling the bait to have been pretty happy with the performance.”

Propeller clams give prospective buyers a few benefits as far as bait goes. For one, propeller clams come in frozen blocks, making them easier to handle and less likely to dissolve in the water.

“With the clam bait, you basically put it in as a frozen block, because we harvest and freeze it in a block. You cut off sections of the block to put in, and then let it thaw and release its juices into the water,” said Garland.

“The propeller clam itself doesn’t break down, it just releases the juices, so when you bring the trap back in, there’s a lot less mess to deal with after you’re done using it as a bait.”

Diana Hanus, Clearwater’s Business Development Manager for Clams, noted that these frozen blocks of clam don’t break down as fast as other bait sources, and can also sometimes be used a second time, giving harvesters more bang for their buck.

“It withstands very tough conditions, so it’s a lot stronger than other baits that you might use,” said Hanus. “So, later in the season when, for example, sea louse might become an issue, they’ll withstand that type of predator. At the end of the day, when you pull up the trap, the propellers are still fully intact. So, you can actually reuse them for the second time you lay your traps down and add some fresh product to what you already have in there.”

Clearwater Seafoods began trialling the use of this alternative bait in 2019 on the recommendation of its fleet department.

According to Hanus, propeller clam bait has seen a lot of positive feedback in Atlantic Canada. They’ve seen a steady rise in sales, with upwards of 1,000,000 pounds of propeller clam sold for bait purposes in a season.

“It worked quite well as a bait under the right conditions, and that it performed just as well as the other baits that were being used, and in some cases better than the other baits that were being used,” said Hanus. “We’ve seen success in Cape Breton, in P.E.I., in New Brunswick and now we’re looking to parallel that success into the Newfoundland market.”

With closures in the fisheries for historic bait fisheries like mackerel and herring, Hanus mentioned that propeller clam populations are in a much healthier state than the aforementioned forage fish stocks.

“It’s a co-occurring species of the Arctic surf clam. The Arctic surf clam is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). It’s very closely monitored from a sustainability standpoint, and where you find Arctic surf clams, you’ll find propeller clams. So, there’s a very healthy supply of the clam, and a supply for years to come as it goes for the bait market,” said Hanus.

While propeller clams won’t save harvesters any money compared to traditional bait, it also won’t cost them any extra. On average, they run a comparable cost to mackerel and herring. The real catch with propeller clams, however, is their catch rate.

“The only thing that we know is that the liquid that comes off of the clams, whether it be in the block frozen form and the liquid surrounding the tissues or the liquid that’s exuding from the tissues, is highly attractive to lobsters,” said Garland.

“A lobster — it doesn’t typically eat fish species like what are used for bait such as herring and mackerel. It’s not part of their natural diet. But bottom dwellers such as clams, including propeller clams and sea urchins, that’s part of a lobster’s natural diet. If you’re farming lobsters, one of the caveats is that some of the protein for the lobster has to include invertebrate protein such as clams or other bivalves. It’s a natural fit as bait for lobster, simply because it’s something that they eat in their environment.”