LONG BEACH and OCEAN PARK — With five or six days of digging spread between Dec. 22 and the Long Beach Razor Clam Festival on April 20, 2019, this will be one of the skimpiest clam seasons in two decades.
In a situation not before observed in 10 years of testing, a lingering current of fresh water from the Columbia River hugged the miles of ocean beaches to the river’s north between January and June 2017. Shellfish managers aren’t certain, but think this water with too little salt killed off much of a historically large clam population counted just the year before.
Last week, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife announced one day of clamming from the mouth of the Columbia north to Leadbetter Point on Saturday, Dec. 22. For the entire season through the end of April, WDFW set a local harvest quota of 333,557. Based on an estimated daily dig of 60,000 clams, this will equate to about one day per month from December through April — though no dates have yet been actually specified by WDFW in 2019. All clamming depends on safe levels of marine toxins in tests conducted just before digging days.
Official news of the scant season was a stinging blow to Peninsula owners and employees, who depend on clamming to attract visitors to the coast from October through early May.
“Nothing affects our business more than weather,” Tom Downer of Jack’s Country Store said on Sept. 7. “Razor clam digging comes in second. Those two external factors eclipse all the drivers of business over which we can exert some control.”
Clam numbers plunge
South Pacific County beaches were alive with clams as recently as 2016. Before that digging season was set to start, WDFW estimated there were nearly 12.24 million adult clams (3 inches or more), along with 6.1 million immature clams. But a year later, there were fewer than 3.1 million 3-inch-plus clams and less than 200,000 small ones, according to WDFW’s census, which relies on using seawater to pump all clams and sand from a sample site, and then counting each clam according to size. These sample results are then extrapolated to come up with population totals for the Peninsula’s entire expansive clam beds.
This season, WDFW census found even fewer adult clams — less than 2.1 million — a drop of 32 percent from the poor total a year before. However, nearly 10 million small clams now are estimated to be making their way to being three inches or more in length — a 52-fold increase from the 2017-18 count.
With 81 percent of Peninsula clams currently coming in under 3 inches, WDFW’s Coastal Shellfish Manager Dan Ayres said, “I don’t expect folks to be happy with the distinct lack of large clams and the number of very small clams — so it’s hard to say how many will come back for more after the December opener.” This will help save clams for later digging opportunities, including the clam festival.
If there is good news for the Peninsula, it is that “these small clams will be closer to 4 to 4.5 inches by next fall [the 2019-20 season] and make diggers much happier,” Ayres said.
To the extent there are adult clams on the Peninsula this year, they are to be found on the northern three miles of the beach. WDFW divides Peninsula beaches into one-mile segments for sampling purposes, starting at the south. Clam densities are best this year around mile 23, followed by mile 24 and mile 22. Virtually no mature clams were found at miles 2, 4, 6, 10, 12 and 15.
In north Pacific County, which was spared 2017’s flood of fresh Columbia River water, there will be a much more generous clam season. WDFW has set a 2018-19 quota of nearly 1.4 million clams for this Twin Harbors area between Willapa Bay and Westport, with an initial 23 digging days from Oct. 11 to Dec. 23.
Fresh water flood
For about the past decade, WDFW has tested the salt level in local seawater at the same time as it tests for harmful algae.
“The salinity levels we saw at Long Beach from January 2017 to June 2017 were easily the lowest we had seen during that period,” Ayres said. The U.S. Geological Survey found “some of the highest flows in over 25 years coming out of the Columbia during this same period and the Columbia River plume models showing it doing its typical right-hand turn flowing north during most of the same period, so that is likely what caused this mortality event.”
Downer of Ocean Park doesn’t buy WDFW’s die-off argument. He and other locals have suggested for years that razor clams move from shallow to deeper waters and back, rendering the agency’s censuses inaccurate.
“If clams don’t move laterally and the clam population that is proximate to the Columbia River has been wiped out by too much fresh water, what are the crabs eating?” Downer asked.
Chamber wants changes
Bad news was expected. The Chinook Observer reported weeks ago that the clam census was disappointing and likely to constrain the digging season to even less than the modest 16 days of digging allowed last year and the dismal 11 days permitted in 2016-17. That was when a domoic toxin outbreak in the ocean effectively wrecked what might otherwise have been a record harvest.
Going back through the 2008-09 season, the Peninsula grew accustomed to an annual average of 45 days of digging — or 54 days, leaving out the poor seasons of 2017-18 and 2016-17. Estimates vary, but one WDFW economic study said an average clam season brings the Peninsula about $22 million in spending.
Clamming is considered especially vital to the economy in Ocean Park. The north end’s reputation as the best clamming area translates into profitable pulses of tourism business, particularly when abundant clams coincide with good weather.
On Sept. 6, the Ocean Park Area Chamber of Commerce sent a letter (see page A4) asking resource managers to immediately divide the Peninsula into three 8.5-mile-long zones. If enacted this year, a north-end zone not weighed down by lack of clams on the remaining two-thirds of the Peninsula would be able to support substantially more digging days.
Splitting the Peninsula into three clam management units also might offer advantages in years when the entire length of the beach has been closed to clamming due to isolated domoic toxin hot spots or the need to avoid the nests of endangered western snowy plovers near Leadbetter Point, the chamber said.
WDFW has previously rejected this proposal, saying that it would be difficult to keep people from clamming in closed areas because of informal access trails and how alike much of the beach appears.
Controlling our destiny
Jim Sayce, executive director of the Pacific County Economic Development Council, said Sept. 10 that he supports the concept of local communities playing a greater role in future decisions.
“Regarding razor clam harvests in general, there needs to be better dialogue and information between the coastal communities and WDFW. To that end Director Kelly Susewind should consider the appointment of a razor clam advisory committee representing the diverse interests who have a stake in the razor clam harvest. While it certainly won’t solve all disagreements, such a forum — that could be attended by the public — offers a more in-depth discussion and just quite possibly, thoughtful discussion that leads to community investment in harvest decision-making.”
Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau Executive Director Andi Day said lack of clamming this fall and winter will be “a tremendous blow for many.”
At the same time, she said it’s important to keep moving forward with successful efforts to diversify the Peninsula’s appeal beyond traditional harvest-based tourism.
“From the perspective of destination marketing, we love clam digging and all that it brings to our area in terms of off-season tourism,” Day said.
“However, we learned the tough lesson a couple years ago that we should not market our destination based on things which we have no control over. … The key to survive and thrive is to focus on all of the outstanding tourism assets that are always available here — the beach, Discovery Trail, all our great lodging, dining, and retail establishments, our cultural and heritage attractions, our parks and refuge, and so on,” Day said.