ASTORIA — When Ron Neva first began, he was selling a few hundred pounds of razor clams each week. A little more than a decade later, the demand has decidedly grown and Neva now regularly sells out up to five tons of the shellfish weekly.
“We can sell 10,000 pounds a week,” said Neva standing by the counter at Northwest Wild Products, a family-owned retail and wholesale fish market at 354 Industry Street in Astoria. “When I started this in 2001, I would sell a few hundred pounds a week.”
Neva’s business has been boosted by the availability of clams commercially harvested by natives on tribal land in Washington.
“Being able to have the Washington clams and ship them out of state has opened it way up,” Neva said, adding that he relies on a mediator to make the sales. For the past two years, Neva has relied on razor clams harvested by members of the Quinualt Indian Nation on tribal land in Grays Harbor County, Washington, where tribal members have treaty rights to approximately 55 miles of beach.
The amount purchased depends on the number of diggers available, which sometimes exceeds 100 including men, women and children of all ages.
“I have a partner and we buy them right on the beach from the native diggers,” Neva said.
He has purchased up to 3,500 pounds in a single trip, which are loaded into cardboard boxes and surrounded with gel packs for the journey back to Astoria. Neva also calls on commercially harvest razor clams from Oregon, relying on about 12 licensed commercial diggers in Clatsop County, but those clams must be sold within the state, according to law, Neva said. Many are then bought and served by local restaurants.
“They will clean them themselves, that way they know they’re getting them fresh,” Neva said. “It’s a much better product than bringing them in from Alaska.”
Razor clams harvested on tribal lands are eligible to be sold to international and domestic markets.
“They go into the Asian markets in Portland and Seattle who ship the Washington clams to New York, Chicago and LA,” Neva said. The demand for live razor clams is particularly strong in China.
“The Chinese put them in live tanks and then they steam them in the shell,” Neva said. “They’re our biggest customers.”
Sales are up 30 percent on the season and the best clamming days are still ahead. But Neva is aware how fast things can change.
“Domoic acid shut it down for the whole year last year,” he said, referring to the naturally occurring marine toxin sometimes produced by a type of ocean diatom.
There are also concerns over razor-clam reproductive rates.
“There’s not many offspring, and that’s what has everyone concerned,” Neva said.