Shucking Fit

This past November, on a fair but chilly day, John Denehy and his crew rode their weathered 18-foot motorboat from Winthrop to the northwest corner of Boston Harbor near Logan Airport, where they expected to find the usual goldmine of harvestable clams. This sweet spot, known as the Wood Island flats, has historically proved to be an exceptionally rich nursery ground. Combined with two other runway-side wetlands, last year Wood Island yielded nearly 150,000 pounds of clams, or about half of Boston's output.

On this trip, though, there was hardly any live catch to be found. Instead of a treasure trove, turn after turn revealed heaps of rancid shells. J.J. Gold, one of Denehy's two digging partners, says he was "pained to discover the barren conditions." Eyeing the terrain, Gold estimated that the soft-shell clam population had been fully decimated, which it turns out was indeed the case. That's when Denehy, leaning on one knee, puzzled, looked up and off the coast, where someone had fixed a boom to absorb what appeared to be an oil spill. "I was devastated," he says. "We were in such disbelief that I wanted to cry."

Denehy has mined these flats since his years growing up in the Orient Heights housing projects. His grandfather started clamming around East Boston in the 1940s, and his father followed in those footprints. While some kids built sandcastles, young John mimicked his elders, scraping at the beach with toy rakes while his dad earned a hard living. Since then he's hustled in the best and worst conditions, from sublime sunny days, when the clam-jizz waterworks can be refreshing, to the coldest hell of winter, when diggers have to break through ice to fetch their catch.

>> PHOTOS: Boston's Last Clamdiggers: Raking the beaches with John Denehy and his crew, by Derek Kouyoumjian <<

On a stellar outing, Denehy and his crewmates will bag five 50-pound bushels apiece of soft-shell clams — the only species they can legally remove, and the type of shellfish that flavors most of the chowders, steamer buckets, and fried-seafood dishes that New England is famous for. On an average day they'll take three bushels; on shitty days, the grab for Denehy's whole squad barely covers the gas it takes to drive or boat to their location.

Like these guys, the 30 or so clammers who remain active within city limits are accustomed to a brutal daily grind (there are 100 current Boston shellfishing licenses, but most belong to retirees and hobbyists). Many of the them have persevered through punishing winds for decades, enduring what in some cases literally amounts to backbreaking work.

Denehy always planned on passing the tradition on to his children, and digging to the grave. As someone who beats the sun up on most mornings, he never thought there'd come a day when he'd lose sleep, fearing for the future of his industry.

But over the last nine months, Denehy and other Boston clam farmers have come to face two seemingly impervious hurdles: a safety expansion at Logan Airport that will deplete two of their richest beaches, and a jet-fuel spill from last October that some allege wiped out half of Boston's soft-shell population. The developments may prove insurmountable — even for a rugged group of workers with a history of beating back extinction.

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