After great season, clam caution urged

<p> THE?2012-13 RAZOR?CLAM?SEASON was more productive than average, but shellfish experts say that caution is needed going forward to preserve the bounty.</p>

PACIFIC?OCEAN — The 2012-13 razor clam season was far more productive than average, but continuing caution is warranted to ensure against overharvesting, state coastal shellfish manager Dan Ayres told attendees at a science conference.

The Long Beach Peninsula ended up with 42 digging days between last fall and this spring, compared to a 10-year average of 26 and only 23 in 2011-12, Ayres said at last Saturday’s Pacific County Marine Resources Annual Science Conference held at the Washington State University research station on Pioneer Road.

The Twin Harbors area between the mouths of Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor did even better, with 78 days, compared to a 10-year average of 36.

There were more than 400,000 individual daily visits to state beaches for razor clamming in the just-concluded season, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates. A more typical year would bring $22 million in clam-related economic benefits, but Ayres said that total was probably easily surpassed this year.

He acknowledged that the increased amount of digging is due to a strong push by coastal citizens who see big gains in business when clamming is open. Until this season, WDFW left 70 percent of clams unharvested each year regardless of whether population surveys found a huge number of mature clams. Now, based on a new formula, our beach was allocated 34 percent of the total clam population and Twin Harbors got the updated maximum of 40 percent.

Ayres said one factor in WDFW’s reluctance to further increase clam harvests is a perception that there is considerable unlawful overharvesting going on.

On the April day of Long Beach’s newly revived Clam Festival, a strong showing of 15,000 people went clamming. In one instance, enforcement officers found that a group of 10 people including several children had dug 36 limits of clams, a situation Ayres said “isn’t unusual.” At 10:30 a.m., two hours after optimum tide, people were still streaming to the beach, which made Ayres wonder if they were coming back for their second or third limits after stashing earlier ones.

Ayres’ reasoning did little to mollify the room, where diggers including Dick Sheldon of Nahcotta questioned the sense of leaving more clams unharvested than is necessary for a healthy ongoing stock. Some coastal businesses “are dying on the vine while the clams are dying in their holes,” he said.

Discussion also arose about the local assertion that WDFW undercounts clam populations and doesn’t believe clams move very much from one part of the beach to another.

But Ayres stood by past assertions that there are few razor clams out in deeper water, based in part on informal surveys at maximum low tide when additional hundreds of feet of marine shelf are exposed. He said most Washington razor clams are a species that feeds on floating plankton, so they must occupy the inter-tidal zone where waters frequently come and go. There is a deeper-water species, but they are fairly rare, he said.

In one concession to local clam fans, WDFW is bringing back its past practice of holding an in-person pre-season briefing in the Long Beach area later this year.

Ayres made brief note of the commercial razor clam fishery on sand spits in Willapa Bay. This season is open for two months starting each May 1. It results in a “pretty good harvest” but isn’t closely tracked. Most of these clams are used as crab bait, but there is now an increasing market for them as a human food item. There are about 100 individuals involved in the commercial clam fishery in the bay.

Crab update

Ayres and WDFW also participate in management of other species, including Dungeness crab, which produce the most income of any Washington state commercial fishery — $47 million in 2011. This compares to $21.5 million for albacore tuna, $5.5 for whiting, $4.4 for pink shrimp and $3.1 for salmon.

It looks like the 2012-13 season for crab will produce about 16 million pounds for non-tribal fishermen — a decent but not record-setting year.

Ayres said Washington, Oregon and California fisheries officials are meeting in Portland this week for the Tri-State Process of recommending crab-management rules. WDFW plans to propose a change in testing protocols that are designed to maximize crab quality before seasons start. The traditional opening day is Dec. 1, but some crab have not finished hardening their new shells and filling out with meat by then.

Leading crabber Dale Beasley of Ilwaco expressed continuing concern that too much of the state’s commercial crabbing is concentrated into the narrow 13-mile zone between Klipsan Beach and the Washington-Oregon state line. The bulk of the Washington coast north of Klipsan is carved up to protect tribal fisheries and traditional fishing areas for crabbers in Westport.

Most crab boats in Ilwaco and Chinook are too small to take advantage of season openings farther north on the coast, Dick Sheldon said. This means “they’re stuck with what’s left over” by the bigger boats from elsewhere, which imposes an economic burden on people here.

Ayres also briefly updated science conference attendees on WDFW’s oyster and shrimp-related activities. State-owned oyster reserves in Willapa Bay, sold via bid to local harvesters, produced 85,556 bushels in 2012 for a total of $212,000, compared to 47,126 bushels for $169,000 in 2011. The price the state gets is determined by market conditions, he noted. The funds are used for shellfish research and to fix failing septic systems that impact oyster beds.

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