It’s no secret that last year’s razor clam season was a banner year. Record number of clam diggers swarmed beaches, working hard to get their limits. 484,388 diggers showed up, harvesting 8,352,279 clams, over 120 total harvest days. That’s a lot of razor clams! This was a welcome success after the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 seasons closed early due to COVID-19 and domoic acid, respectively. Thousands of eager razor clam diggers are wondering if this season will be as successful as the last. Dust off those razor clam guns and get your hip boots ready, because the forecast is looking promising! WDFW assessed razor clam populations throughout the summer and all had strong, harvestable populations except for at Kalaloch, which will be closed this year to allow recovery. Let’s take a closer look at this year’s forecast, and how WDFW determines annual razor clam harvests.
Razor clams have been enjoyed by millions of people over thousands of years. They are a valuable resource to hungry fishermen and local economies. WDFW estimated the fishery value to be $71,689 last year. So how are these crucial resources managed? Since 1929, WDFW has managed the coastal razor clam harvest. It’s a difficult job- they have to balance the demands of recreational fishermen with the rights of the tribes, all while keeping public safety in mind. Management strategies have been ever evolving. From 1929 to 1942, there was a year-round season, and a 36-clam limit. In 1943, WDFW limited the season from March 1st to September 30th, and in 1960, the clam limit was reduced to 18. In 1973, the seasons were further reduced, and in 1974, the 15 clam limit we are familiar with today was implemented. In 2000, the seasons became much less set in stone and varied from October to May, depending on counts conducted through the “pumped area” method. In 2004, WDFW switched to the system still in use today, the “adjusted exploitation rate” method. Management strategies are ever evolving based on the increasing amounts of clam diggers every year, and changing oceanic conditions.
There are 3 pieces to the puzzle that WDFW must take into account before announcing razor clam digs: population counts, domoic acid levels, and tribal rights. The first piece of the puzzle is population counts. Each summer, WDFW conducts population counts at every beach: Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis, Mocrocks, and Kalaloch. Based on these counts, they estimate the total number of clams measuring under 3 inches, and the total number of clams measuring over 3 inches. They allow a certain percentage of razor clam population over 3 inches to be harvested each year, in order to make sure the population stays sustainable for years to come. Up to 40% of razor clams 3 inches and above may be harvested every year for the population to remain sustainable. After every harvest, WDFW calculates the remaining TAC (total allowable harvest), and sets further days based on that number. This way, poor tidal conditions and weather don’t mean we get shorter seasons. Alternatively, if conditions are great and there are more harvesters than predicted, the season may close early on that beach. Population counts are closely monitored throughout the year to make sure this popular fishery will remain for years to come.
Before WDFW opens recreational harvesting, they must also determine whether the clams are safe to eat. WDFW’s goals are not only to keep the resource around for years to come, but also to protect public health and safety. Unfortunately, clams are subject to accumulating marine toxins in their bodies which can make harvesters sick. Harmful algae blooms are naturally occurring, but concentrate in razor clam tissue. The most prevalent toxin is domoic acid, caused by consumption of marine plankton, called diatoms. Eating a razor clam that has high levels of domoic acid can cause nausea, dizziness, memory loss, and stroke-like symptoms. There is no antidote, and the toxin is not destroyed by cooking/freezing. WDFW carefully tests razor clam populations for domoic acid throughout the year, and will close seasons accordingly, even if TAC (total allowable catch) hasn’t been met.
The final piece which WDFW must take into account is tribal fishing rights. Each year in August, WDFW discusses population estimates and domoic acid levels with the coastal tribes that have fishing rights on razor clam beaches, and comes up with the total allowable catch (TAC). 50% of the TAC goes to recreational fishermen and 50% goes to the tribes.
The coastal tribes work with WDFW staff to come up with joint population assessments, and share their data together. Tribal seasons take place on different days than non-tribal seasons, and each group makes their own harvest estimates and enforces the rules themselves. Razor clams are a co-managed resource that tribal and non-tribal stakeholders take very seriously.
Beach has by far the largest TAC (total allowable catch) share at 5,865,490 clams, and Mocrocks has the smallest, at 1,964,732. Interestingly, the average size of clams is slightly smaller this year. Last year, they were 4.4 inches long, and this year they were 4.22 inches on average. Although the clams are a little smaller, there are plenty of them! Overall, the forecast looks promising. WDFW always tries to schedule razor clam digs on weekends at least once a month during the months of October through May. The WDFW director checks marine toxin levels and looks at the remaining TAC for the year before announcing that the harvest dates can proceed. Clam digs have been tentatively approved throughout November and December.
In an unprecedented move, WDFW increased the limits from 15 to 20 razor clams last year. Will it happen again this year? For now, keep an ear to the ground and always check your rules and regulations before heading out. Speaking of rules and regulations, it’s always a good idea to brush up.
Make sure each harvester has their own container to put clams in. Many sporting goods stores sell clam nets, which readily tie to your wading belt to keep your hands free for digging and holding flashlights. Remember that the first 15 clams dug must be kept, no matter the size or condition. We’ve all accidentally crunched clams while digging them, or dug up a tiny one, but they still must be retained as part of your 15-clam limit. That being said, there are plenty of clams out there to be had. It’s shaping up to be a good year, so go out and get those razor clams!