An un-shellfish position

If you are familiar with Marblehead’s numerous volunteer boards and committees, there’s a chance you may or may not have heard of the Shellfish Constables.

Even if you have, you might not exactly know who they are or what they do, but the constables actually play an integral role in activities involving shelled creatures in the water at Devereux Beach.

Appointed by the Select Board, the Shellfish Constables are responsible for monitoring clam diggers, making sure that they are properly licensed and that only legal-size clams are being harvested.

In addition, they also test the water to make sure the quality of the clams is safe.

State of Massachusetts law requires that any coastal city and town appoint “person or persons, qualified by training and experience in the field of shellfishery management, as shellfish constables or deputy shellfish constables.”

For Jack Attridge, the current Chief Shellfish Constable, his family’s involvement in clamming almost automatically makes him qualified.

“My brother, Wayne, was the Chief Constable before I was. Our grandfather used to go clamming all the time and would bring them home and clean them,” Attridge said.

Attridge, who took over as Town Moderator last year, is one of five constables serving in town.

Devereux Beach is the only stretch of coastline in town that allows for clam digging. Marblehead has multiple types of clams in the area, ranging from little neck clams to oysters and mussels.

Attridge said that at Devereux, he had seen Razor Clams. However, those cannot be harvested.

Any clams that are harvested are required to be 5 inches in size at a minimum. When patrolling, Attridge said the constables will go into the buckets of clam diggers and make sure that there are no undersize clams.

Diggers aren’t allowed to leave the shoreline until the constables have checked their clams.

“People get used to seeing us, so they’re more likely to make sure that everything is within size,” Attridge said.

However, humans aren’t the only ones subject to patrolling by the constables. Attridge was seen chasing down a hungry seagull who had cracked open a clam, looking for a snack, with no permit in sight.

The clam-digging season just got underway at the beginning of October. Attridge said their permit allows the season to run from Oct. 1 to May 1. Before they can open the beach for digging, the constables must test the water, as well as clams.

Occasionally, the beach will have to be shut down if water tests don’t come back clean, especially during periods of heavy rain.

“It happens rarely, but if we get a deluge of rain, sometimes we have to pump our sewer overboard, so we close down until we get clear water tests, ” Attridge said.

Though each of the constables keeps a keen eye on the beach regularly, most of the patrolling is needed once a month when there is a full moon tide, as that is typically the best time for clamming.

Attridge said that even he and the other constables will be out digging during that time as well.

Recently, some of the best tides have been before sunrise or after sunset. Unfortunately for clam diggers digging is prohibited during those hours.

As for licensing, the constables have given out as many as 100 recreational clamming licenses. Last year was a down year, according to Attridge, where only 63 licenses were issued.

After being closed for several years due to red tide, Attridge’s brother was part of a group that led the movement to get the area reopened. Years later, clamming at Devereux Beach is back to thriving, and with the help of the town’s shellfish constables, the shorelines fishery remains proficient for those digging for clams.