Spinney Creek Shellfish Inc.: Dedicated to Safe, Savory Shellfish

There may be nothing more disappointing to environmental stewards and shellfish enthusiasts than the closure of certain estuaries due to compounding impurities, and Spinney Creek Shellfish Inc. (SCS) is on a mission to help reverse the impacts of shellfish contamination. The company maintains one of only a handful of certified commercial laboratories in the U.S. to support state-of-the-art depuration technology.

This professional, annually evaluated facility ensures shellfish are clean on the inside and out, which will have an impact on public health, sustainable seafood and tourism revenue in shellfish-rich areas. This infrastructure allows SCS to provide consumers with some of the highest quality North Atlantic oysters, Maine soft-shelled clams (commonly known as steamers) and New England littlenecks (aka Quahogs). All of these are delivered with a guarantee that every bivalve will be totally safe, as well as delicious.

The company’s employees (between 10 and 20, depending on time of year) are based out of the small town of Eliot, Maine, along the Maine-New Hampshire border. The company, which is nearly 30 years old, is family-owned and -operated and is headed by husband and wife Tom and Lori Howell. Through SCS the Howells have taken an active role in protecting the health of oyster and clam environments and the connoisseurs that love to consume the safest, cleanest, freshest live shellfish.

The company is equal parts dealer and processor, specializing in safely sourcing thousands of bushels of top-quality oysters and clams from producers located along the coast from Canada down to the Chesapeake Bay. Once procured, the shellfish are cleansed inside and out in pure Maine seawater. Naturally, many of the company’s oysters and clams come from prime harvesting areas within a stone’s throw of its headquarters, including the water directly in front of its facility. These wild Spinney Creek oysters are still hand-harvested by the SCS crew – with the help of a handful of college friends – who dive deep to bring up a bounty of sweet, clean oysters boasting a cupric finish.

Other specialties include steamer clams, plump, meaty Gerrish Island oysters from the Mid-Atlantic, classic Cape Neddick Oysters from Long Island Sound (the region known for blue points), Pepperell Cove oysters from Prince Edward Island and SCS-exclusive Westport Island oysters that are hand-grown and harvested in Maine.

SCS sells its quality-tested bounty directly to restaurants, as well as to wholesale distributors, grocery retailers and food service suppliers. The large majority of SCS products are consumed right in New England, but some SCS shellfish routinely venture as far as Florida and the Midwest.

A Treat Fit to Eat

Once the shellfish are harvested, that’s when SCS really gets to shine. Every bivalve is cleaned inside and out using SCS’s two-day depuration system. The shellfish are loaded onto racks and placed in giant tanks of purified, sterilized Maine seawater. The shellfish will sit in the tanks for upward of 48 hours, purging harmful microbiological pathogens, including low-level toxic algal blooms like red tide. After depuration SCS tests the shellfish meat for any remaining harmful substances. The laboratory has been active since 1984 and is evaluated annually by state and federal officers. Depuration can also provide an extra level of safety in shellfish harvested from areas approved for direct consumption. The extra testing assures consumers of the shellfish’s safe-to-eat status.

“Shellfish are filter feeders so they tend to concentrate everything that’s present in the water around them,” expands Tom Howell, president and owner of SCS. “Our depuration process actually reverses the process and reduces contamination by 90 to 99 percent, making it possible for us to harvest shellfish from estuaries where the water quality is less than acceptable.”

Supporting Local Fisheries

As growing coastal populations contribute to runoff and the pollution of coastal waterways, depuration will be needed more than ever. SCS’ treatment process can assist in offsetting the loss of shellfish growing areas, maintaining a supply of shellfish available for harvest. Many clam diggers and oyster harvesters have come to SCS to step in and save bushels of shellfish and prevent the disruption of the local fishing economy in an affected area.

The SCS plant has even attracted attention from several large seafood processors that wish to see the technology in action, and Tom believes that the work at SCS is far from being over. “We’re a science-based business, really, because we don’t sell anything that hasn’t gone through the depuration process,” admits Tom, who studies physical oceanography and microbiology. “We’re currently working to advance this technology in such a way that would reopen harvesting flats that are permanently closed, such as the Presumpscot River.”

A big part of SCS’ challenge at the moment is actually getting producers to acknowledge the reality of regional water quality. “No one wants to believe their water isn’t clean, but we believe in using whatever processes we can to ensure public health,” asserts Tom. SCS is already working with the Food and Drug Administration and the Maine Department of Marine Resources to spearhead the further advancement of depuration technology.

“We have had a great research collaboration with the federal government’s scientists, but one of the challenges we face is getting regulators to accept that each business should be allowed to expand, harvest and process according to the individual abilities of that firm, not just sticking to one-size-fits-all regulations that haven’t kept pace with technology,” expands Lori Howell, vice president of SCS. As SCS works to prove the efficacy of its depuration process, the company also works to ensure the company’s findings and commitment to quality assurance are taken into consideration and appropriately weighed by the industry’s regulatory entities.

Only the Best

Despite challenges from regulation and the economy, summer 2012 has treated the SCS team well, delivering a bounty of fresh shellfish and the fair weather to go with it. SCS has helped to showcase the wild littleneck clams and oysters of the local region to the delight of the local food movement and consumers across New England.

“It’s not technically a new product, but we’re very upbeat about expanding the supply of our soft shell clams,” adds Lori. “We’re very excited about the research we have done to show how our enhanced process reduces virus levels in shellfish. This has opened one growing area to us, and has the potential to open many more.”

As showcasing the company’s technology opens up more market share, the SCS team will work closely together to ensure the company’s processing facility, laboratory equipment and refrigerated vehicles stay in top condition and running smoothly. Through conscientious adherence to best practices, the company will serve as a platform for local shellfish specialties, guaranteeing the safety and scrumptious flavors of every product Spinney Creek Shellfish Inc. tests and packs.