TAHOLAH (April 11, 2006) – Ocean waves pound the beach and wind-driven spray chills the fingers of Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) shellfish biologist Kelly Curtis and tribal technicians on a late winter day near Ocean Shores. The crew is out completing a winter razor clam survey as part of a five-year cooperative effort by QIN and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to improve estimates of natural razor clam mortality, a critical piece of information used in setting harvest rates.
Razor clams are important to QIN both culturally and economically. Culturally, razor clams have been a part of tribal diets and ceremonies for thousands of years. QIN is also the only Washington tribe that has a commercial razor clam enterprise; a small but vital supplement to tribal incomes. QIN and WDFW co-operatively manage the razor clam resource on off-reservation beaches within the nation’s traditional gathering areas.
“While we’ve been doing this razor clam mortality survey for several years now, you really can’t draw any conclusions from the data until we’ve done the whole five years,” said Joe Schumacker, operations section manager for QIN Fisheries. A razor clam’s life span is typically about five years but is affected by disease and environmental factors. Maintaining a healthy, harvestable number of razor clams is also dependent on the addition of young clams.
To track the changes in clam populations, a quarter-mile long stretch of Copalis Beach that was historically a clam reserve is being utilized for the mortality experiment. The reserve was divided into a harvested side and a control side. At the beginning of the study, diggers took nearly 30 percent of the adult clam population on the harvested side while no harvest has been allowed on the control side. The study will record the death rates and addition of all ages of clams through approximately one life cycle on both sides. WDFW is repeating this experiment at the Long Beach clam reserve located farther south to strengthen the study.
The tribes and state use a hydraulic method to determine clam densities and harvestable numbers. Water is pumped through a hose in the sand to force all the clams in the sample area to the surface. All of the clams are counted, then returned after their size has been recorded.
The mortality study is aimed at answering when and at what size clams die. “The current harvest rates were determined using data from a couple decades ago when we didn’t have the hydraulic sampling ability. This study will result in much better data to estimate mortality rates,” said Schumacker. One result might be increased harvest if the study shows a large die-off of older clams each year, meaning it’s a “use them or lose them” scenario but that remains to be determined.
Population surveys are normally conducted in the summer, but a winter mortality survey was added this year to give the co-managers another snapshot of that population during the year. The mortality study, in combination with a study of growth rates of razor clams by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, should yield the most complete information about razor clam population dynamics in Washington in recent times.
For more information, contact: Ed Johnstone, fisheries policy, Quinault Indian Nation, (360) 276-8215 or 8211; Joe Schumacker, operations section manager, Quinault Indian Nation fisheries, (360) 276-8215, ext 325; Kelly Curtis, shellfish biologist, Quinault Indian Nation, (360) 276-8215, ext. 576; Debbie Preston, coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commisson, (360) 374-5501, firstname.lastname@example.org