The Town of Fairfield’s Annual Clam Clinic, sponsored by the Fairfield Shellfish Commission and held at Sasco Hill Beach, drew a record number of participants on Saturday.

This popular free family-fun event, held this year under sunny skies, boasted hundreds of clam diggers, young and old. Members of the Fairfield Shellfish Commission hosted the two-hour “keep your catch” event, and provided clamming rakes, buckets, bags, ice and hands-on clamming technique tutorials.

“Today we are holding our annual clam digging clinic, it’s free to the public, we have beautiful weather this year, record numbers of people here, the water’s clean and we have lots of clams out there,” said John Short, chairman of Shellfish Commission. “Everyone’s coming back with a good harvest. People don’t realize we have this treasure here.”

Shellfishing in the Town of Fairfield is overseen by the Shellfish Commission. According to the Shellfish Program, the Conservation Department provides administrative support for the commission and the program. The Shellfish Program affects more than 1,000 acres of municipal shellfish beds from Ash Creek to Sasco Creek including Long Island Sound. This program regulates both recreational and commercial interests and includes water testing and management obligations by four town departments under a state-approved Memorandum of Understanding. The program improves water quality for swimming and clamming, provides opportunities for recreational shellfishing at Sasco Hill and Southport beaches, and commercial opportunities in all coastal waters. The Shellfish Management Plan guides the use and conservation of the town’s shellfish resources.

“It’s our favorite thing to do each year,” said Brian Carey, Conservation Director. “We have it down to a science now and we may another smaller clinic in the fall. The average age of our shellfish permit holder is 68, we’re hoping to get the younger people involved and to keep it going. It’s great to see so many of the young families and kids here; they will be the future generations of the shellfishers. The water’s getting cleaner so hopefully we’ll be able to open other areas of shellfish beds on the beaches in Fairfield in coming years.”

This once local event has expanded through recent years, largely attributed to social media, “We have people here from New York and Massachusetts,” said Short, who posted the event on Facebook.

“We heard about it from Facebook and it looked interesting,” said mother of four, Krystin Pasarell who drove from Springfield, Mass., with her family for the event. “It’s our first time ever trying this and the kids love it and we caught a lot, the kids are excited. We’re spending the day here on the beach.”

“What an incredible community event!” said State Rep. Cristin McCarthy-Vahey, as she thanked the commission for their good works. “This to me is an incredible sign of our community but also of our sea-faring heritage, it’s just amazing to see the connection people have with nature, the community, and with each other, it’s the best of what Fairfield is all about.”

A total of 14,000 market clams, from G&B Shellfish Farms in Stratford, were distributed in the waters off the beach. “Our goal is to show that there are other things you can do on Long Island Sound such as clamming, it’s fun, safe and accessible,” said Short. “In addition, we have CT Sea Grant here and the Mill River Wetland Committee, telling about the benefits of oysters and clams in the waters. The Shellfish Commission supports the oyster population by collecting spat and growing the population and planting. We work year round; we collect shells from local restaurants through our shell collecting program to aid in these initiatives.”

“We are here to promote conservation efforts and awareness, we hold the Mill River Lab Program with the schools,” said Sarah Neafsey, Fourth Grade River Lab Program. CT Sea Grant, based at UCONN, also promotes awareness and was on site. “Part of what we do is community outreach about shellfishing, the environmental and economic benefits, aquaculture, as well as the social and cultural importance of this activity,” said Tessa Getchis, Extension Educator with the CT Sea Grant program. “This is a great opportunity to bring people together, it’s fun for families to experience and enjoy the wildlife; once they experience it they value it and want to take care of it.”

Importantly, awareness is being raised and passed on to younger generations. “We are trying to raise awareness of what the oysters do for the environment such as filtering 50 gallons of water a day per oyster and of how nitrogen affects the populations of clams and oysters, so does ocean acidification, we work with marine biologists,” continued Short.

Each year two clam chowda recipes are featured, one of the Manhattan Clam Chowda and the other of the New England Chowda; free samples of each are offered throughout the event. “The event has grown to be so large, there are a lot of families here, great comradery and everyone’s walking away with a lot of clams!” said Alison Savona, Vice Chair of the Shellfish Committee. “We like to feature some clam chowders every year, one is donated by the Study at Yale’s Heirloom Restaurant in New Haven, and the other (Manhattan Chowder) is made by our Chairman John Short. We have two options for everyone to enjoy and it’s a big hit. We also hand out recipes so folks can go home and use them with their clams.”

“There is this resource available recreationally to the residents of Fairfield, I think people are surprised to learn this fabulous New England tradition is right in their backyard, you can actually go out and harvest something you can enjoy at home, so it’s that farm/ocean to table feel,” Savona continued. “Also, the awareness of what we have to do to keep the waters clean and our parts as stewards is shared, and also to understand our oysters, clams, mussels are all helping to clean the water, over the years the waters getting cleaner and they certainly have a part in that. It’s important to help keep this resource alive and going.”

“This seems like a great family event so we came to check it out and catch some clams,” said Katie Cook, who brought her four- and six-year old children Anna and Will for the first time.

“Oyster season is closed now but it’s open for clamming. The clinic’s main goal today is to raise awareness of the resource that’s here, the kids love it, it’s like digging for buried treasure,” laughed Eric Johnson, commissioner. “We have a great turnout; everyone’s getting a lot of clams and is enjoying a beautiful day on Sasco Hill Beach!”

A permit is required to shellfish. The annual fee is $20 for residents (16 years and older), $10 for senior residents (60 and over), and $40 for nonresidents. The permit season is Jan. 1-Dec. 31. No more than a half bushel (four gallons) of oysters, hard clams, soft-shell clams, razor clams or blue mussels, may be harvested per permit holder per day with no more than one bushel of shellfish collected per week per permit holder. This regulation includes that a half bushel contain no more than 24 oysters per permit holder per day. Open season and size limitations apply. Violators face a fine of up to $250. Visit http://fairfieldct.org/shellfishpermits for more information.