Agency fears easy pumps threaten clams

01/20/2021

A new and efficient tool used to dig up clams is posing a threat to clam populations, state Fish and Wildlife scientists say. Next month, the Fish and Game Commission will consider an emergency ban on hydraulic pumps, which have largely replaced the shovels historically used for clamming. 

Shovels typically work during the lowest tides, on roughly 150 days a year, and they require more finesse. But pumps work on most days, bringing ocean water into an area where a clam is suspected to be buried several feet below, to loosen the sand. They usually involve one person pumping while another feeds the plastic tube into the sand.

Fish and Wildlife wardens believe their use has led sport clammers to take more than the allotted 10 clams per day, and sometimes for sale. 

“We’ve noticed particularly since the abalone closure in 2018 and then this past year, when folks have been restricted in what they can do due to Covid, there’s been a lot more interest in clamming and the harvest of tidepooling invertebrates,” said Ian Kelmartin, who specializes in invertebrate management for Fish and Wildlife. “It’s come to this perfect storm, where there’s this more efficient tool and more interest in recreational clamming in general, that is putting pressure on the resource that we don’t think is sustainable at the moment.” 

The public may comment on the proposed ban on clam pumps during next month’s hearing, scheduled for Feb. 10 or 11. The emergency ban would go into effect almost immediately, while a longer process would take place throughout the year to make the change permanent. That effort would involve assessing the health of clam populations statewide.  

Lawson’s Landing, a historic local spot for clamming, is being depleted, according to co-owner Willy Vogler. From the mid-50s until 1999, the landing owned a barge and would take visitors out 100 yards into the bay to two islands that only emerge on a low tide, known as Seal Island and Clam Island. That stopped because clams were becoming harder and harder to find. 

Mr. Vogler, himself a clammer, opts to use a shovel. It’s a skill that he said took years to perfect. Yet he estimates that up to 80 percent of clammers on the shores of Tomales Bay today are using pumps, some of which are produced commercially but many of which are jury-rigged. The illegal commercial activity has been troubling. 

“When you see beds of the pickups owned by the wardens full of clams they have taken away from people, yeah, something needs to be done,” Mr. Vogler said. “I’m in favor of doing something to prevent the clams from disappearing. At Lawson’s, it’s a family thing, it’s a historical thing, and it has been our bread and butter.”

A haul of gaper clams extracted by pump from the Lawson's Landing area in 2018. The growing use of hydraulic pumps and rising interest in clamming has threatened regional populations. — Rich Meade, Department of Fish and Wildlife