For the first time in more than a year, a popular stretch of beach in Clatsop County will reopen for razor clam digging starting Sunday, but fish and wildlife biologists say there will be fewer clams to go around.
High levels of the biotoxin domoic acid in the clams coupled with an annual summer closure to protect young clams have kept the 18-mile stretch of beaches between South Jetty in Fort Stevens State Park and Tillamook Head in Seaside off-limits to diggers since last July. Before the closure, clammers had experienced a record with an estimated 16 million clams available on the Clatsop beaches last year. Clammers quickly and easily hit their daily bag limits.
This year, however, annual surveys show only an estimated 3 million clams in the area, the lowest number recorded there since state biologists first began surveys in 2004.
“These low numbers are troubling, as they mean Clatsop beaches haven’t seen a significant recruitment event for two years,” said Matt Hunter, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s shellfish project leader. “But this recruitment issue is not isolated to just Clatsop beaches. It’s being seen on the entire Oregon Coast and for Washington beaches, too.”
In the past, the clams harvested on the Clatsop beaches have accounted for more than 90 percent of the razor clams harvested in the entire state.
Razor clam populations are cyclical, state biologists say, with periods of high abundance often followed by times of low abundance. And there is a silver lining: Since the harvest has been closed for so long on the Clatsop beaches, the clams available are larger, averaging about 4 1/2 inches.
“While razor clam numbers are lower this year, clams are quite large,” Hunter said. “To be successful, clammers should be diligent, choose the best low tides and actively ‘pound’ to get razors to show.”
This year is the first time Washington state has fallen into a rebuilding category for harvest on its beaches because of the low population numbers, particularly those in the southern portion of the state, according to Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He attributes the low population numbers in part to an extended period of low salinity in near-shore ocean waters.
The state announced several tentative digs through December, but is severely limiting the number of days available, and is also keeping a close watch on toxin levels. The first dig will start at 7:49 p.m. on Oct. 6 in Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis and Mocrocks, and at 8:33 p.m. the next day in these same locations. The next round of digs will occur in the first week of November.
“We’re taking into account that it’s a weaker population as we set harvest rates,” Ayres said. Even while the numbers are low and the state takes a cautionary approach to digs, Ayres still expects clammers will go home happy.
“The total number of clams may be down this year, but we still expect good digging on most beaches,” he said.
The tides are another factor clammers will need to consider, however. As the coast plunges deeper into fall and winter, the best low tides will occur early in the morning or at night, said Mitch Vance, shellfish project leader with the Oregon fish and wildlife department’s marine resources program.
“We’re getting into nighttime razor clamming, which is a whole different world,” said Vance, and it is something he recommends only for “people who already know what they’re doing.”
Throughout September, the levels of domoic acid have gone up and down by small increments; recent tests show clams are safe to eat, Vance said. The Sunday opener follows several rounds of tests that showed levels of the toxin were below the threshold established by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. The state will continue to monitor toxin levels and announce a closure if levels spike.
In Oregon, the daily bag limit remains 15 clams per person, with no sorting or releasing allowed.