Country Matters: Up to the elbows razor hunting
A recent sea tragedy involving a young fisherman has brought inshore razor-shell fishing to wider notice.
Many had never heard of 'razors' as sea food nor had seen them on sale on supermarket slabs among the prawns, shrimps and bagged mussels. Bunches of razors, usually tied with string or rubber bands like lobster claws, may be displayed in some fish retail hubs such as Howth but otherwise are seldom seen.
There are no promotions for their consumption that I have noticed, the product being almost totally bound for export markets, especially China. And those openly for sale are usually snapped up by proprietors and chefs of Asian restaurants.
Razor-shells are elongated, straight or curved with valves at both ends and with a tooth or two in each valve. They live in deep, vertical burrows in sandy bottoms and when they move to the top for feeding they reveal short fused siphons. They retreat with great alacrity when disturbed using a muscular foot as a powerful digging tool. But that doesn't save them from being trawled by fishing craft.
There are 10 European species, which includes four more common ones, and, in the past 30 years or so, one immigrant from America, the jack-knife clam, has spread widely in European waters reaching the French coast in the early 1990s. This fellow occurs inter-tidally and estimates suggest dense populations of up to 10,000 per sq m on some shores.
However, the traditional European razors are a threatened species through overfishing, an old story... They were once sought for fishing bait but now razor trawling is big business and small boats may be seen hugging shorelines seeking a slice of a market estimated at €2m annually, mainly with China.
Razors in their pencil-like grey shells are called finger oysters in Australia and stick-bait in South Africa. The Swedish naturalist Linnaeus named them ensis siliqua and there are boat-shaped ones in the Pacific and Indian Oceans called sunset siliqua.
I remember when a walk along a strand as a tide ebbed would reveal the tell-tale bubbling keyholes of their hiding places. Older men, walking backwards, used to seek them with hooks on long, straight wires, moving carefully so as not to disturb them, an intriguing sight.
Galway teacher and writer Seamus Mac an Iomaire, in his classic early 20th-century work, The Shores of Connemara, with tongue in cheek, perhaps, advised fishers of the "scian mhara" to "whistle musically to catch it" and to "sink your arms to the elbow in the hole you cleared". He tells of men and women coming on to strands to catch razors during big spring tides "armed with loys and forks and creels to carry them home when the tide has turned".
They made fine meals. To prepare razors they should first be immersed in boiling water to detach the shells. Then the gut is removed and fish lightly cooked. They may be baked or used for chowder. On the western seaboard they are prepared with potatoes and onions "and other things added", says Mac an Iomaire, mysteriously. One fisherman I know poaches them in milk.
I have never sampled them myself.