Business and Innovation Courage and initiative Our Planet

Sustainable clams yield a profit

Littleneck Clams, or tuangi, freshly hand-dug from the Otago Harbour. Photo: Richard Ellwood

A successful Otago business which sustainably harvests wild clams and other seafood says this makes good business sense.

Southern Clams Managing Director, Roger Belton, set up the company 38 years ago, when Littleneck clams were dug from beds in Papanui Inlet on the Otago Peninsula.

Harvesting later moved to Blueskin Bay, north of Dunedin, where the clams are suitable for live sale. They are sold domestically and exported overseas to North America, Asia and Europe.

In selected areas of Blueskin Bay and the Otago Harbour, a manual body-dredge system enables harvesters to pull a metal lattice through the upper levels where molluscs live. The harvested clams are big enough to take, while juveniles pass through the dredge bars. This causes less damage to the shellfish and is gentler on the habitat.

Mike Aluesi in front of fellow Southern Clams harvesters after manually gathering clams in the Otago Harbour. Photo: David Redshaw


Roger says a wild-stock rotational harvesting method they’ve pioneered uses GPS to record every harvest, providing real-time information about the stock.

When Southern Clams started in 1983, the biomass of clams in Blueskin Bay was estimated to be 12,000 tonnes. The most recent biomass survey estimate was 13,000 tonnes.

Roger says they have a high degree of confidence that the clams are being sustainably managed and third-party research has corroborated this.

Asked why sustainability is important, he replies with a rhetorical question – “Why would you develop a business if it’s not going to last?”

“I would like to think we’ve established something that will be here in 100 years’ time and that it makes the best use of what we can produce in New Zealand.”


Award winner

Southern Clams won the Sustainability and Resilience Award at the Westpac Otago Business Awards, run by the Otago Chamber of Commerce, in November 2020.

The business employs 30 people at its Dunedin processing factory and three full-time-equivalents at its export office in Christchurch.

In addition to harvesting methods, other environmental measures include a heat recovery system which provides the factory with all its hot water. Refrigerating seafood requires electricity and solar panels generate between 12 and 14 percent of the enterprise’s energy needs.

Where possible, cardboard chill-containers are used instead of polystyrene boxes to transport live clams within New Zealand and overseas.

The company has planted 125 ha of bio-diverse trees in the Waitaki District and the resulting carbon credits mean its “New Zealand footprint” is carbon neutral.

The Littleneck clams are exported to North America, South-East Asia, Japan, China and Europe, although the global Covid-19 pandemic has affected sales.

“It’s been a quiet year,” Roger says.

The shellfish are harvested to order regarding the size and number needed each time. Last year, the business harvested 700 tonnes of clams, although in a good year it gathers 1000 tonnes.

Because of the pandemic and resulting reduction in flights, live products only are being air freighted at present.

Southern Clams Domestic Sales and Accounts Manager, Richard Ellwood, says Covid-19 has closed restaurants in many countries, affecting seafood consumption.

However the business has been aiming to increase the New Zealand proportion of its market, to reduce the environmental footprint of export freight. It is also investigating ways to safely export live shellfish without using aeroplanes.

Grocery story growth

Roger credits Richard with achieving considerable growth in the New Zealand market during this past difficult year.

Richard says this is “thanks to our friends in the grocery stores”.

He adds there has been huge demand for “luxury shellfish” because people have been travelling and eating at restaurants less, and cooking at home more. Live clams, fresh fish and Queen Scallops have been popular.

In the shellfish business: Southern Clams Managing Director, Roger Belton (left) and Domestic Sales and Accounts Manager, Richard Ellwood

The company harvests the scallops in the Pacific Ocean off the Catlins Coast and fresh fish off the South Island. For the past four seasons, it has collected and dehydrated seaweed from the Otago-Southland coastline and it hopes to move into selling fresh seaweed.

Littleneck clams are indigenous and unique to New Zealand, yet similar in flavour to Adriatic Sea clams. In years not affected by the Covid-19 crisis, the business has even sold molluscs to Italy, which is renowned for the spaghetti with clams dish, Spaghetti alle Vongole.

Indeed, a culinary “coals to Newcastle” story.

If you liked this article, join up to our Daily Encourager Media Facebook page by clicking here

For further information:

About Southern Clams

Westpac Otago Business Awards



Did this story bring you hope?

By becoming a Daily Encourager supporter, you will help bring hope and courage to New Zealanders. Get people excited about our country and our people and the amazing things they are achieving.

You can make an investment in hope for as little as $5.

Become a supporter

Leave a Comment

Daily Encourager
Sign up to our regular newsletter highlighting the best things happening in New Zealand society.