OUTDOORS: Peninsula clams, clamming still sickly

THE MOST PRISTINE, untouched coastline in the state rests on the North Olympic Peninsula.

With a few notable exceptions, Peninsula beaches have been controlled by Olympic National Park for more than two decades, and thus benefit from its general “look, don’t touch” dogma.

No motor vehicles, no commercial harvesting, no development, no littering, no skinny dipping (I’m assuming).

Unfortunately, there’s also been no recreational shellfish harvesting of late, either.

Be it Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) or Nuclear Inclusion X (NIX), some dreaded acronym has left Peninsula beaches a veritable no-dig zone this winter.

Popular razor clamming destination Kalaloch, which was officially excluded from two sets of spring harvest dates on Wednesday, is among the most notable casualties.

In stark contrast, the state-run and less protected beaches to the south have been open to shellfish harvesting all winter.

That leaves one to wonder, how can that be? Don’t Peninsula beaches receive more protection than a presidential motorcade?

Shouldn’t that result in some sort of sand-laden Eden complete with thriving hordes of clams, fish and huggable hippies frolicking about (clothed, of course)?

As it turns out, it’s not quite that simple, according to park coastal ecologist Steve Fradkin.

“The entire coastline appears to be relatively the same, but it’s very different,” he said.

“The idea that Kalaloch is within a national park, so it should be better protected . . . in a lot of ways it’s true. It is better protected from a variety of threats.

“The problem is that the beach is connected to the bigger, broader ocean. That’s not something that we have control over, and that’s not something we necessarily know what influence that’s having.”

It appears that variable has been negatively affecting Peninsula beaches, most of which fall within park boundaries, more so than the south of late.

This winter, for example, PSP levels rose to dangerously high levels on the Peninsula coast.

The presence of the deadly neurotoxins, also known as red tide, forced park officials to close all recreational shellfish harvesting in November.

State-run beaches, however, remained open all winter because their PSP levels never rose past the human threshold.

Kalaloch clams

Then there’s Kalaloch’s ill-fated razor clam population.

While diggers have had little trouble getting limits at Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Long Beach and Copalis this season, Kalaloch was closed for the second straight year due to a lack of harvestable clams.

Fradkin believes the presence of NIX, a disease which affects the gills of razor clams but does not affect humans, is largely responsible for that.

Park ecologists have been monitoring Kalaloch for nearly a year as part of a two-year study examining the presence of NIX.

They’ve been taking samples every other month, with results pointing to a building presence of the bacteria, according to Fradkin.

The majority of the clams sampled are only 3.1 to 3.2 inches from end to end, which is far from large, with one age group (aka a cohort) making up 95 percent of the population.

“Normally there’s a bunch of really big ones, a bunch of small ones,” Fradkin said of clam populations.

“That’s indicative of a bunch of different cohorts. Right now we have this one. The idea is that all of the big ones are not there because they died off, and we think what killed them is NIX.

“The last couple of years, we’ve had these huge mortality events. That’s when all the big ones are dying off.”

The lack of larger clams led Fish and Wildlife coastal shellfish manager Dan Ayres to recommend against including Kalaloch in this spring’s morning digs.

And as was expected, when the March and April harvest dates were announced by Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday, Kalaloch was excluded.

Whether things will change anytime soon, either for digs in May or even next fall, is anyone’s guess.

“Over the long run there are generally fewer clams at Kalaloch than at state beaches,” Fradkin said. “They tend to grow a little slower.

“We tend to have more pronounced domoic acid issues at Kalaloch. What that really speaks to is the oceanographic processes are a little different at the Kalaloch area than down south.

“We don’t know about NIX and what its life history is. Because we don’t know that, we don’t know why one area is hit harder than another. I could sit here and spin out thousands of different stories.

“At the end of the day there’s so much chin music because we don’t have the faintest idea. We just know it’s there.”

_____

Matt Schubert is the outdoors and sports columnist for the Peninsula Daily News. His column appears on Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at [email protected]

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