Editor's Notebook: Let’s have a fair share of plentiful clams

<p>Matt Winters</p>

Wildlife-conservation concerns certainly aren’t always misplaced.

Rocky Mountain sage grouse are now at such a perilous point that efforts to aid them might make spotted-owl “recovery” look measly as a sparrow.

As recently as my boyhood, we used to shoot a half dozen “prairie chickens” in the cool morning dew and fry them up with paprika over a popping sagebrush-fueled campfire for picnic lunch.

Round here, you can barely flip a pebble into the water without hitting something that’s zealously regulated. Some of these species really do – or once did – face serious threat of local or total extinction. There are types of North Pacific rockfish that reproduce slower than Tolkien’s ents, the giant tree-men with such low libidos that they misplaced all their wives. Some upriver runs of spring chinook salmon also are near the edge of disaster, though I wonder whether we are leaping through flaming hoops of agency red tape to avoid catching fish that are essentially identical to their unprotected cousins, except for preferring water from slightly different-tasting rivers.

Caution is warranted. Over the centuries of human ascendancy on earth, there are ample examples of our encountering different creatures so delicious and stupid that they no longer exist. Our world would be better if it still included wooly mammoths and Dodo birds.

Whole industries have sprung up based on our fervent desire to avoid similar screw-ups. If a person’s intrinsic self-worth as a human being – and his or her paycheck – are linked to saving something, then by gad, you can bet it’s going to get protected, almost whether it needs to be or not.

Here on the shore north of the Columbia’s mouth, there’s a feeling that razor clams are in the category of “not a bit at risk, but let’s protect the crap out of them anyway.” This is partly based on the observation that there are still many clams in Oregon sands, despite a continuous season that stretches on and on. In Washington, clam openings occur only a few days a month in the cooler seasons. To an outsider, selection of clam dates can appear as mysterious and arbitrary as the designation of movable religious feasts by some secret denomination of hooded priests.

There is near-universal agreement that Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s clam experts led by Dan Ayres are knowledgeable, friendly and dedicated – and mistaken about how many clams must remain unharvested each year to ensure perpetuation of a healthy future population. Last fall, after years of intense Long Beach Peninsula lobbying, WDFW upped the percent of clams that could be removed from 30 percent … all the way up to 34.5 percent. Even this conservative change resulted in 42 digging days on the Peninsula in 2012-13, compared to a 10-year average of 26. So far, so good.

For decades starting in the 1890s, razor clams were extracted from local beaches with gusto unmatched by anything in the modern era. Recreational digging was virtually unlimited at the start and became a strong lifestyle theme on the Pacific Northwest’s outer coast. Tourist-oriented Ilwaco Railway & Navigation Company, 1888-1930 under various owners, was nicknamed the Clamshell Railroad. Tens of thousands of happy diggers used it to access the shoreline. Clams also were a marketing motif of the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad connecting Portland and Seaside.

Commercial digging hoovered up more clams, literally on an industrial scale. Centered on the productive beaches from about Tillamook Head north to the Quinault Reservation, at least a dozen or so significant companies produced canned clams over half a century. A 1930s recipe booklet produced by Warrenton Clam Co., one of many shellfish-related items I’m collecting to eventually give to an appropriate museum, provides this account of the harvesting process:

“Warrenton clams live on the fresh seaweeds and the ocean washed kelp, the plants of the ocean, for they are wholesome little vegetarians in their choice of diet. … They dig into the clean white beach sand and there clam diggers hunt them at the exact moment when the receding tide covers them with a foot or less of sweet salt water, washing them clean and adding to their fresh flavor of mingled sea and sunshine. Once captured, the clams are taken immediately to receiving stations and are from there hurried by motor trucks to the packing houses.”

Sounds thrilling.

No doubt there was overharvesting. Certainly the long lines of cars coming north across the Astoria Bridge on clam days indicate conditions are better under the modern Washington system than in Oregon. But it is not unreasonable to push for a 50 percent allocation to humans of this species that often dies of natural causes at maturity. Fifty percent could allow consistent three-day openings throughout the fall, winter and spring, pumping money and fun into coastal Washington towns. And like natural salmon that die at their spawning grounds and enrich the forest, a good share of clams ought to be left for the birds and crabs. Fifty-fifty is a fair split.

The delicious tradition of clam digging deserves a new squirt of life for this new century.

— M.S.W.

Matt Winters is editor of the Chinook Observer and Coast River Business Journal.


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