Suquamish tribal elders hold clam harvest after hiatus

More than 40 Suquamish tribal elders participated in a clam dig in Chico Bay in July, for the first time since harvest was shut down in 2020 for polluted water and remained closed because of COVID.

“It’s rewarding. It’s a cultural tradition. Everybody makes a little pocket change, we socialize. It’s enjoyable,” said tribal elder Georgia George. “And this beach is real prolific. It rejuvenates itself easily because of the flow of the tide.”

Usually the tribe holds several harvests a year specifically for elders on this beach off Erlands Point, said Nik Matsumoto, a shellfish biologist with the tribe. In 2020, the beach had to be shut down due to several leaking septic systems within the Chico Bay watershed, making the clams unsafe to consume. 

After working with property owners to connect to the local sewer system, the state Department of Health upgraded a portion of Chico Bay as open for harvest, but the presence of COVID became an issue.

“We didn’t think it was a great idea to have our elders gathering for a harvest during COVID, so we had to suspend all elders digs,” Matsumoto said.

By 2023, with COVID restrictions lifted in Washington state, tribal elders showed up in full force to Erlands Point in mid-July, carrying lawn chairs, food, buckets, harvest bags and clam forks to the beach.

“It feels great to be here,” George said. “It’s a social thing for all the tribal people to get together on the beach like we have for forever. And as we age, we get the younger ones to dig for us.”

David Mills Jr., harvesting for elders, checks in with Suquamish shellfish staff Viviane Barry and Rick Alexander during the first elders clam harvest at Erlands Point since before the pandemic.

Elders are allowed to have a helper dig for them if they’re not able to dig themselves. Younger tribal members scampered around the tidelands, digging the allotted 200 pounds for one family member, reporting it to the shellfish monitor, calling out which relative they were digging for, then rushing off to dig for another.

Harvested clams were purchased by the tribe’s seafood company or taken home for personal consumption.

“It’s a good time because I can come out and visit with family and friends that I don’t see very often anymore,” said tribal elder Kevin George, who had his nephew harvest for him. “We’re all stay-at-home kind of people nowadays. It’s good to get out to visit and have a good time and talk to people who you haven’t seen in a long time.”

Suquamish tribal elder Ed Cordero harvests clams on Erlands Point. Story and photos: Tiffany Royal