A gray muck swallows their boots as they dig into it, snatch clams from between cracked shells and sea worms, then crouch low to do it again. It's unforgiving, often dreary work, and all these Boston-area clammers want is the chance to keep at it.
But they say pending safety upgrades to the runways at Logan International Airport will claim important shellfish beds and nursery grounds and kill an industry segment that's already staggering from a recent die-off of the soft-shell clams they uncover.
John Denehy, head of The Boston Clammers Association, said the airport's manager _ the Massachusetts Port Authority _ is moving ahead with no regard for whether the 30 or so Logan diggers survive the changes.
He said there's no talk of money to make up for the lost business. And though Massport plans to relocate the soon-to-be-lost wetlands, the areas they're discussing are either too far away or no good for clamming, Denehy said.
"They believe they're bigger and stronger than we are, and they're just going to overwhelm us," said Denehy, 39. "We're going to fight them to the last clam, and we want them to know that."
Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis said the agency, in fact, values the clammers as another "set of eyes and ears" to boost security around the airport.
He added that the clammers have been consulted about the crucial safety upgrades, including during a March meeting, and there was a public comment period before permits were issued in April.
And Brelis said nothing is final about the new shellfish beds: Discussions are ongoing with the state Division of Marine Fisheries about what they'll pay to establish them. Any new shellfish beds, though, can no longer be located close to airports, under Federal Aviation Administration guidelines, he said.
"Shellfish attract birds. Birds are a hazard to aircraft," Brelis said.
Logan's clammers have taken on Massport before, when they were shut out of the land for security reasons after the Sept. 11 terror attacks were launched from the airport.
Fourteen months later, the clammers returned to Logan's prolific flats after persuading state lawmakers to pass regulations allowing them back under tighter screening, including background checks and fingerprinting.
The coming $70 million safety upgrades are required by the FAA to improve two so-called runway safety areas, which include granite fill and sections with collapsible concrete blocks to slow or protect airplanes that overshoot or undershoot the runway.
The expansion takes away 62,370 square feet of shellfishing at the end of one runway, 22R, and about 5,400 square feet at the end of runway 33L, according to a final environmental impact statement. The area at the end of 33L is scheduled to be closed next month; the end of 22R will shut down in two years.
Denehy said both areas are crucial to the local industry's future, especially after local clammers were whacked by an unexplained die-off of soft-shell clams at Logan's most productive flats.
The clammers blame an October 2010 jet fuel spill by cargo and baggage handler Swissport, saying it's no coincidence live clams disappeared shortly afterward. But Brelis said that's doubtful.
"Because only one species (soft-shell clams) was affected, it is likely that a virus was the cause rather than petroleum contamination," he said.
Massport owns the land around the airport up to the high water mark, but the public has the right to dig beyond that, Denehy said.
Diggers pay various annual fees to do their work, including $100 for a state license and $75 to Massport, he said.
The shellfishing areas the clammers will lose with the safety upgrades haven't been nearly as prolific as the beds affected by the die-off. The environmental impact report describes the larger one as "rarely, if ever, harvested."
Clammers say those areas are important nursery grounds and argue that the coming construction will alter the tidal flow, affecting the habitat in a way that further erodes the overall catch.
Clam digger J.J. Gold, 34, compared the flats to farmland that's productive in cycles but can't ever yield clams again once they're lost.
"We have to just surrender our farmland here," Gold said. "We understand you need to have Logan airport here for Boston and the state, but we still matter, too."
Clam digging is seasonal work for some, but guys like Gold and Denehy work all year, whether the mud is soft or hard as winter.
They dig in with a clamming fork _ sort of a five-pronged pitchfork bent on an angle with a short handle. The clams are tossed into a pail and eventually end up in chowder bowls, fried clam baskets or steamed and dipped in butter.
Most of the soft-shell clams caught in Massachusetts (70 percent) are dug up between Gloucester and Newburyport, in the state's northeast corner, with Boston Harbor clams accounting for 12 percent of the total harvest, according to the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs.
The airport flats are by far the most productive in the harbor area, producing 47 percent (145,250 pounds) of the 2010 total, worth nearly $165,000 at an average price of $1.14 per pound.
If they must exit the airport area because of the die-off and lost land, the diggers may look north, to sites in nearby Revere or Salem. But the historically productive area is essentially irreplaceable, Denehy said.
Bob Wells, 67, is a third-generation clam digger who got his start at age 12. The work "just destroys your body," he said, noting he's had a back operation, a bypass on his leg, and every nerve in one of his arms is dead. The approaching eviction from the land near the airport without what he feels is fair compensation makes a tough trade even tougher.
"I've been trying to make a living at this," Wells said. "You wouldn't do this. Anybody in their right mind wouldn't."