While high levels of marine toxin continue to force a delay in digging along Long Beach, the 2016-17 razor clam season looks as if it could be a good one. The season begins Friday when Twin Harbors, Copalis and Mocrocks beach areas open.
“I think the relatively minor spike in domoic acid will clear up and we’ll have all beaches open sooner than later,” said Dan Ayres, the coastal shellfish manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In looking at numbers from the summer population assessment, Ayres predicted Long Beach will have more days of digging than the state has offered in a very long time, with Twin Harbors right behind. Copalis and Mocrocks will have a more normal season, he said, with fewer opening days than the other two beaches.
That’s a promising forecast, considering diggers last season averaged 14.2 clams per trip, just below the 15 per person daily limit. During last year’s limited season, there were 327,500 digger trips, with a harvest of 4.7 million clams.
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Even though we are getting off to a bumpy start, I expect some excellent razor clam harvest opportunities ahead and I think diggers have a lot to look forward to.
Dan Ayres, state coastal shellfish manager
The cause for a delay in digging at Long Beach is elevated levels of domoic acid found in clams.
Domoic acid is a natural toxin produced by the marine algae pseudo-nitzschia. It can cause illness, or even death, in humans and marine animals if consumed in sufficient quantities. Cooking or freezing the clams will not remove the toxin from the edible portions of razor clams.
High levels forced the early end to the 2014-15 season and delayed the start of the 2015-16 season. Twin Harbors never opened last season because toxin levels along the Westport-Tokeland beaches were too high.
State health regulations will not allow digging when the domoic acid levels in clams reach 20 parts per million.
The Long Beach area, Ayres said, will be kept closed until further notice because toxin levels exceed the safety threshold.
Adding to the angst over domoic acid, the state Department of Health on Friday issued an interim advisory on the potential health risks associated with eating large quantities of razor clams harvested from the coast.
The agency recommends people eat no more than 15 razor clams per month during a one-year period. This applies to everyone, the department said, especially women who are pregnant or might become pregnant, nursing mothers, children, the elderly and people with compromised renal function.
The department cited the “Community Advancing the Study of Tribal Nations Across the Lifespan” study that showed eating large amounts of razor clams with low-levels of domoic acid might cause memory problems.
Conducted by the universities of Maryland, Hawaii and Florida, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and several coastal tribes, the state agency said the research was done to evaluate long-term exposure to low levels of domoic acid from eating razor clams.
The interim advisory will remain in effect while the department gathers more information on the potential health risks associated with low-level exposure to domoic acid.
Another concern for diggers this weekend is the weather.
National Weather Service meteorologist Andy Haner said 30-foot waves could hit the Washington coast this weekend as part of a strong storm headed for the Northwest.
“Anyone thinking about clamming should check back or think twice, because out on the beach there could be life-threatening conditions this weekend,” Haner said.
Here is the outlook for each of the five beach areas:
The clam population has more than doubled since the 2012-13 season, topping 12.2 million during the summer stock assessment conducted in July. Using a 40 percent harvest rate, that sets the allowable harvest of almost 4.9 million clams.
The average size of clams is 4.3 inches.
The clam population is densest north of Ocean Park, with several test areas reaching or exceeding 3 clams per square meter.
The adult clam population is at 4.7 million, up from 3.2 million last season but below the five-year average of 5 million. The total allowable catch for this season is 1.89 million clams.
The average clam is measuring 4.4 inches.
The population density is best from the county line north, reaching about 4.5 clams per square meter at the north end of the beach. There has been a lot of erosion at the south end of the beach, so digging will not be as productive in that section.
This season’s population estimate is 5.7 million, down from last year’s estimate of 6.4 million and the five-year average of 6.5 million. Because the state and Quinault Indian Nation share the harvest here, the state’s allowable harvest is just over 880,000 clams.
The average size of the clams here is 4.5 inches.
Diggers will find the most clams in the stretch from Ocean Shores north to Conner Creek near Ocean City, where the density is about 3 clams per square meter.
This beach has seen the largest decline. This year’s estimate is 4.8 million, down from last season’s count of 8.4 million and the five-year average of 7.2 million. With such a drop off, Ayres said, people should expect fewer days of digging in this area. The state’s allowable harvest is more than 941,000 clams.
The average size of clams is the largest at 4.7 inches.
The summer stock assessment shows the digging should be best at the south end at Copalis Rocks and north end at Moclips. The density is 3 clams per square meter at each end.
Still to be determined is the prospect of digging at Kalaloch. The beach has been closed the past four seasons because population numbers were too low. But the preseason counts show a population of more than 5.7 million, the highest since 2001, Ayres said.
The issue, he said, is these clams have been slow to grow, likely a function of the large number of clams and a lack of nutrition to support them. The average size is 3. 4 inches.
The highest density is an astounding 11.6 clams per square meter at the Kalaloch Campground.
Ayres said his agency and staff at Olympic National Park are still discussing how to proceed. The park is involved in management decisions because the Kalaloch beaches are within the park boundary.
Ayres said he is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Even though we are getting off to a bumpy start, I expect some excellent razor clam harvest opportunities ahead and I think diggers have a lot to look forward to.”
Staff writer Kenny Ocker contributed to this report.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640
Licenses: All diggers age 15 or older must have an applicable 2016-17 fishing license to dig razor clams on any beach. Licenses, ranging from a three-day razor clam license to an annual combination fishing license, are available on the department’s website at fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov and from license vendors around the state.
Limits: People can keep 15 razor clams per day, and they are required to keep the first 15 they dig regardless of the condition. That means you cannot leave behind small clams or ones with broken shells. Each digger's clams must be kept in a separate container.
Night digs: In the fall and winter, digs often take place at night. In addition to having a light source to help while digging, make sure you mark the location of your vehicle. It’s easy to lose track as you walk the beach.
Looking for holes: As you walk the beach, look for “clam shows,” where a clam has withdrawn its neck or started digging, leaving a hole or dimple in the sand. The show can be a dimple in the sand, a hole surrounded by a circle of sand or just a simple hole in drier portions of the beach.
When to be there: The digging is best an hour or two before low tide. The receding water will expose more clam shows. The low tide times for Twin Harbors, Copalis and Mocrocks: Friday, 5:55 p.m., 0.2 feet; Saturday, 6:42 p.m., -0.6 feet; and Sunday, 7:28 p.m., -1.1 feet. Twin Harbors also will be open Monday, 8:16 p.m., -1.4 feet; Oct. 18, 9:04 p.m., -1.4 feet; and Oct. 19, 9:55 p.m., -1.1 feet.
Tools: Your best choices are a clam shovel or a clam tube. Shovels are more traditional, but using a tube might keep you drier and cleaner. Use a small net or bucket to hold your clams. Remember, everyone has to keep their clams in a separate container.
For tips on digging, how to clean clams and updates on upcoming digs, go to wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/razorclams.