Keeping Clams Alive in an Aquarium

What do you feed clams?
I was just in the process of writing a very detailed piece on the processing of shellfish when I came across this question while stumbling around the InterWeb looking for information:
How hard is it to keep clams alive in my aquarium?
So in the spirit of: “Ask a guy the time, and he tells you how to build a clock” Here is a very long winded, in depth answer to this very simple, albeit avant-garde question. But first, let’s bow our heads and ask God’s blessing on the Internet; a place where a couple curious souls can stumble across each other’s paths and strike up a conversation about keeping a pet clam!

aquarium (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An important part of shellfish processing for food, involves keeping the clams alive after they have been removed from their natural habitat. These methods apply directly to this interesting idea of keeping clams in your aquarium.

I have been wanting to do this myself. As a commercial fisherman, I throw hundreds of interesting little sea creatures overboard all week long. The ichthyologist in me thinks it would be really cool to keep a salt water aquarium full of these creatures. I’ve kept fresh water tanks for years, and my oldest son is deep into it too. It is a cool hobby, and adds interesting decor to your living quarters.

American Mussel Harvesters, a company who buys our catch, have to keep more than a few mollusks alive outside of their habitat. At the end of a day where we do two trips, we off load about 12,000 pounds of mussels. Although we are the only dredger on that set, we are not the only fisherman; there are the bull rakers out there — so they are keeping all that catch too. After they receive them, it is crucial to keep them fresh i.e.; alive until they are eaten alive or boiled alive -or, kept in an aquarium as pets! They have a large scale, complex system for achieving this. You will create this same environment and control many of the same parameters, but on a much smaller scale. 

A clam can live in the air and of course in the water, salt water (if it is a salt water or brine clam) but it will suffocate if put in a closed container. If you try to have fun with clams by going to the beach and digging them up, don’t seal them up in a plastic baggy or container. Keep them in an open bucket, or onion bag (net type sack) and when you get home, put them in the fridge in a bowl. When the temperature of a clam is kept below forty five degrees Fahrenheit, it’s metabolism slows to a near halt. However, temperatures below freezing will kill them! They can be kept this way for quite some time without dying off. This idea would need to be carried over if I were to mail clams to you. I would put an ice pack in a non-airtight container. I know that if not the US postal service, Fed-Ex would deliver living clams, because they do it for some of the orders that AMH sends out. Part of their processing plant is a huge cold room kept between 40 and 45 degrees. However, the cold room at AMH is only used only intermittently during the processing. The rest of the time, the mussels are kept in a wet environment similar to their natural habitat.

Diagram of the nitrogen cycle in an aquarium.

Diagram of the nitrogen cycle in an aquarium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is done by bringing the environment to the clams…They pump seawater right from the bay, the same bay they were harvested from, through an irradiation system that kills the bacteria that might kill the mussels, and onto the big tubs filled with the mollusks. After it passes over and circulates through the fresh catch, it goes into a big stainless steel vat. Inside this vat is a suspended sand mixed with a charge of living (good) bacteria that will act to filter out ammonia before the water is recirculated through the mussels again. This is what you are going to need to watch in your aquarium. These clams will eat all sorts of suspended organic material found in their environment, floating around in the water. This keeps the waters they inhabit, and our beaches, clear and clean (thanks Mr. Mollusk!) However, in the process, they will excrete a quantity of nitrogenous wastes. This will cause the ammonia in your aquarium to spike. High ammonia is detrimental to all the life contained in the tank, including the mollusks that produce it. 

How do you remove ammonia from your aquarium? Below, in related articles, is an excellent post that explains the chemical free way to accomplish that. You won’t have to go through anything like a separate bacteria charged filtration system. If you’ve got it right, it will happen naturally. But how and what do you feed a clam? This is another difference between the system American Mussel Harvesters employs and what you are trying to accomplish, keeping them in a small closed environment, as pets to whom you will provide nuturing care and shower with affection. Even though there are naturally occurring nutrients in the water that they are circulating through the clams, they are not trying to give them any “last meal” before they become one!

Just the same, this food product won’t be kept anywhere near long enough for the mussel to starve to death. But, we need to know how to feed a clam in captivity. Phytoplankton is the answer. Phytoplankton has to be used sparingly because it can mess up the water. Clams don’t just survive on this food, but photosynthesis plays a big part in the health and wellness of a clam, so make sure that your aquarium gets sunlight, or use a good MH light bulb. So, overall it doesn’t seem too difficult to keep clams. 


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