On the northern corner of the New Jersey shore, shielded by the four-mile spit of Sandy Hook, sits the Borough of Highlands, a half-square-mile town of 5,000 souls. The main drag has a few bars and delis, a gas station, and a laundromat. For work, there are a couple of waterfront seafood restaurants, a few marinas, and the clam boats.
The waters off Highlands have the mucky bottom clams need to root, and the nearby Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers supply the highly oxygenated, nutrient rich waters. In this brackish mix, quahogs—or hard clams, as they’re known—propagate and thrive by the millions.
Clams from the baywaters between New York and New Jersey aren’t deemed fit for human consumption straight out of the sea. Instead, they need to go through “depuration,” a 48-hour process wherein they suck in, clean, and purge themselves of contaminants. And Highlands is home to one of the largest depuration facilities on the East Coast (the largest facility, according to management): the JT White Shellfish Plant, which in recent years has sent more than 40 million clams a year to market.
The thickening clam colonies beneath the waters and the plant at the dock have driven the town’s industry for decades, even when every other factor has run against it. Commercial clamming in Highlands has survived natural disasters, corporate mismanagement, and small-town politics. Still, the industry faces the viselike pressures of economic inequality and real estate, climate change, and the seafood market. Clamming hangs on, but only just.
Not long after dawn rises, Johnny Deckert is out, drifting on the silent expanse of the Raritan Bay. He raises a tarp on the thin mast of his shallow-walled, flat-bottomed 25-foot boat, and lowers his clam rake into the water. The rake’s aluminum shaft telescopes to 75 feet and, from the surface, Deckert digs the rake’s mouth, a steel basket with three-inch teeth protruding from its lower jaw, deep into the muck of the seafloor.
The boat drifts. Deckert gives the handle a shake. His palm reads the drag and tremors that travel its aluminum length. The rake has a solid mouthful, and Deckert pulls it up, losing the mud to the depths. Once the rake head is out, he empties its catch into an orange crate that’s tagged with two numbers. One number represents him and other represents the patch of the bay where he digs; the state of New Jersey can trace every clam.
Deckert tosses back the big in favor of the small. The depuration plant has allotted him seven crates to fill and it pays per clam. A crate of littlenecks and cherrystones–younger, smaller clams– tallies a higher number and will earn more money at the dock.
Some hours later, the sun is high and the morning’s glassy ripples have turned to heavy chop. With his crates full, Deckert starts up his inboard diesel, puts his back to the not-so-distant towers of Lower Manhattan and heads for Highlands.
Deckert is 82 years old and claims he is likely “the oldest clammer living in captivity.” His persistence in the brutal, if meditative, work strikes one as unlikely. But then, clamming’s persistence here is unlikely, too.
The first depuration plant in Highlands opened in 1974, on $50,000 of public money won by the lobbying efforts of the Baymen’s Protective Association (BPA), a loose collective of North Jersey clammers. The BPA had pushed the project for over a decade. The plant, it hoped, would settle concerns over pollution and safe consumption of the local quahog.
However, once underway the plant struggled to meet rising safety standards, and by the mid-1980s the facility closed. Without it, the shellfishermen had to transport their catch to South Jersey to purge out. The cost drove many off the water, and as an industry, clamming in Highlands appeared doomed.
Until James T. White saved it.
Clam digger, schoolteacher, and BPA president, Jimmy White became mayor of Highlands, and in 1989, won a $1.3 million grant from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to revitalize the clam industry.
“Jimmy put everybody back to work,” says Kevin Kirk, operator at the JT White Shellfish Plant.
According to Stories from Highlands, New Jersey: A Sea of Memories, an oral history of the town edited by local historian John P. King, White “treaded” clams as a kid. Knee-deep in the estuary, kids would twist their heels through the sand, working sideways and snatching up the clams they unearthed. “By the end of the summer our legs felt a foot shorter,” White said.
White kept clamming, even as mayor, and died in 1991. He was killed in an accident while delivering Highlands quahogs. Without his administration, White’s plans for the grant—an updated, high-capacity depuration plant—faltered.
The grant money ran out, and the project languished until 1995, when two clammers—Walter Hughes and Frank Brooks—put up the funds to finish the plant in return for the plant’s management contract.
To BPA loyalists, private management was a deviation from White’s original vision, which was to have the new plant be run by the collective.
“Brooks and Hughes had full control of all the sales and the product.” says Kirk. “They ran it like a dictatorship.”
Ed Eisman, former BPA President, current board member, and lifelong clammer, describes the Brooks and Hughes era in milder terms: “A lot of guys were unhappy.”
In 2001, the BPA unseated Brooks and Hughes in a lawsuit and gained control of the lease and the management contract. Now, with the product and sales in their hands, the Baymen had to deal with themselves.
It’s hard to get any group to come together that way. With clammers, it’s doubly difficult.
“You can’t get these guys to agree that the sky is blue,” says Kirk.
“If we were having a keg party,” says Eisman, “you could never get everyone to agree on a beer.”
But they did it. With their livelihoods at stake, the Baymen transformed from a loose confederation of rugged individualists into a high-producing, structurally complex, democratically organized nonprofit of 75-plus members that manage the common resource of the quahog within the strictures of a heavily regulated market. Within a few years, the depuration plant was processing tens of millions of clams a year, the boats were back on the water, and Highlands clamming was saved.
Saved, that is, until the winds kicked up and the waters rose, and—scariest of all—the city fathers decided it was time to renegotiate.
Sandy versus Sandy Hook
The quahog is a creature of primeval simplicity—a few organs in a hinged shell—but the regulatory apparatus around catching and eating quahogs is complex. The JT White plant monitors the oxygen content, pH, and temperature of the water in its tanks, sending in a constant stream of data, along with a closed-circuit camera feed, to the New Jersey Department of Health. The Bureau of Shellfisheries of the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife tests the waters as well. The FDA and state require a battery of certifications on every aspect of the plant. The state tests the clams themselves every day. The results fill spreadsheets in the plant’s computers and fatten binders that line the shelves of Kevin Kirk’s office.
If the plant couldn’t prove that it had met every safety standard, it risked closure. So, when Superstorm Sandy began to swell the waters off the Jersey Shore on October 29, 2012, Kirk knew his priorities with absolute certainty: nimble-footed in his white rubber boots, he saved the data.
Then came the water.
On Bay Avenue, the town’s main drag, water covered the fire hydrants and inched up the poles of street signs. Sandy’s storm surge, a massive dome of water pushed by the wind and pulled by a full moon, reached up to 17 feet at its apex.
That night, waves wiped away docks and tossed ships into town, jamming them into alleys and sending prows through kitchen windows. Eighty-five percent of homes in Highlands were either damaged or destroyed. The water peeled off walls and left houses in a terminal tilt.
The following day, Kirk returned to the plant. “The dock looked like a roller coaster,” he says. “The neighbor’s dock was bent up and poking through our back door. And two of the 25-ton units that heat and cool the plant’s water went from the top of the building to the ground.”
Plant workers and shellfishermen showed up with tools and trucks. They gutted and rebuilt the ruined interior rooms. They replaced the refrigeration system. They put a new roof on the plant. “Everybody was hauling debris, banging nails, doing a thing or two,” says Ed Eisman.
“In six weeks, we were back on the water.”
The real storm hit a couple of years later. In February 2015, the Highlands borough council noted that the lease on the facility was set to expire in August of that year. As the council saw things, it was required by New Jersey law to solicit proposals and lease to the highest qualified bidder.
The borough was getting $38,000 a year in rent. It decided to open the bidding at $76,000 and stated that it wanted a tenant that could double production capacity.
The Baymen stewed. As they saw it, their lease was renewable. If the borough wished to hike the rent, the lease contained a provision that required negotiations and, failing agreement, arbitration by a third party. Besides, the original agreement with the Port Authority specified that the plant was to be run as a nonprofit, and the borough’s demands seemed to be violating the spirit of the agreement.
(We’ll never know for sure about that last point. The borough requested the relevant documents from the Port Authority, only to learn that they had been lost—along with some expensive real estate and 2,996 human lives—on September 11, 2001.)
From there, things went mostly downhill. The borough’s request for proposals turned up only one qualified bidder, and the existing lease was extended for six months. In December, the BPA filed a lawsuit against the borough in Monmouth County court, asserting that the Borough had breached contract by disregarding the lease’s renewal provisions and had unlawfully threatened forcible eviction. The plant, the BPA said, exists for the clammers and the consumers they serve: It was J.T. White’s Port Authority grant that got the plant under way, and the borough has never put in a cent. Furthermore, the BPA said, the Borough of Highlands failed to insure the plant against storms such as Sandy and now owes the Baymen for hundreds of thousands of dollars of repairs.
In January, the borough council voted to hire a consultant (at a cost equal to most of a year’s rent on the depuration plant) and put out another RFP.
Here, the story of the Baymen versus town hall goes quiet. Nobody directly involved is talking. “We’re negotiating,” says Sean Regan, the BPA’s attorney. “Councilman Doug Card has taken point on this for the borough. He’s sincere in resolving the dispute, in getting it done.”
The diggers on the dock, however, have plenty to say. The borough wants to take over the plant, they tell me. They want it razed and the property sold for condos.
All of the documentation from the borough council, limited though it might be, demonstrates an intention for the plant to continue as a depuration facility run by a certified operator. The fear of developers, however, has a lot to do with proximity: To the back of working-class Highlands rises the town of Monmouth Hills, where the median income climbs by 50 percent, and Rumson—Springsteen’s home—one of the wealthiest towns in the state. Across the water, a 45-minute ferry ride away, the spires of New York City take shape in the haze.
The vise grip of the NYC real estate market and the age-old hunger for seafront property have turned many of the surrounding towns into bedroom communities and weekend getaways for wealthy Manhattanites. So while the Baymen’s conspiracy theories may be premature, they sound a well-founded lament for the future of their hometowns.
Meanwhile, clamming continues, but at a diminished rate.
“Prior to Sandy, we were producing 25 or 26 million clams per year,” Ed Eisman says. “Now we’re producing 15 to 16 million clams per year.”
One reason is money. In 30 years, clam prices have hardly budged. Accounting for inflation, they’ve dropped.
Eisman breaks it down: In 1982, he says, littlenecks on the dock went for an average of 14 cents apiece. Three years ago they were still only 18 cents. In the past two years, they’ve reached 25 cents. But that bump is a blip, a result of QPX—quahog parasite unknown—a bug hitting clam farms. The growth of clam farms could be keeping prices low, Eisman says. There are too many clams for a demand that lags, given contamination scares and a general cultural drift away from traditional shellfish.
Meanwhile, commercial clamming costs have risen.
“Thirty years ago, gas was 60 cents a gallon, a dockage was 400 bucks,” Eisman says. “Now it’s 2,400 bucks. An overboard motor was $1,800 or 2 grand, now it’s 10 or 12 or 14 grand.”
Whatever the reasons, the economic climate is driving people out of the business.
“If you made $40,000 or $50,000 in 1980, you’re saving a few bucks. Now if you’re making the same money, you’re looking to get a part-time job to supplement your income. It’s just not enough anymore,” Eisman says. “I got four kids, and I definitely would not want to see any of them involved. It’s just not what it was.”
It may never be what it was.
“Sandy wiped the whole bottom of the bay out,” Kirk says. “Where there used to be four to five inches of mud, now’s a hard bottom.”
And there’s a different, but related specter: climate change. Dr. Daphne Munroe, a researcher and quahog specialist at Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Lab, says the more frequent, more powerful storms of our altered climate could move the sand of the seafloor.
“Low-tide storms, in particular, are bad news for clams,” Munroe says.
Climate change’s heat isn’t likely a problem for hard clams, she explains, but polar vortices, fugitive Arctic winds snapping down the Eastern seaboard–another new normal,–will cost the quahog.
“Clams don’t like really cold winters,” Munroe says. I ask what happens.
“They die,” she says.
At the end of a day’s digging, Johnny Deckert just wants to sit in his recliner. But first he has to endure the climb to his front door. Superstorm Sandy convinced him to put his house on stilts. Builders lifted his house on cribbings of four-by-fours, legs resembling Jenga towers, until a cinderblock shell was complete.
Inside, Deckert reclines in the dark. The electricity never got fixed after Sandy. To charge his phone he runs an extension cord off of his car battery. “I live like a caveman!” he says.
The house was built in 1904 and first owned by his grandfather. It’s two floors right on the water, a collection of rooms that meld into each other at junctures of exposed beams, ragged plaster, and layers of paint and paper that attest to its history like tree rings.
“It’s built like a tank,” Deckert says. Memories aside, he’s hung a “for sale” sign below the front window.
“You’re gonna sell the house?” I ask.
“I expect any buyer will knock it down. The house part at least,” he says. “I’m entertaining offers.”
This house was once a speakeasy and number-running joint. It’s the house where he grew up. The only working faucet pours into the sink where his mother washed his bare ass as a baby, he tells me.
Later, I plug Deckert’s address into Zillow. “Badly damaged house, 100 years old, on a floodplain.” But it’s a beachfront property, and less than an hour commute to Wall Street. The site says it’s worth $800,000.
It’s a miracle Deckert has held it this long.