Swinomish clam garden lays a foundation for future generations of harvest

After many years of planning, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community has laid the foundation for the first known modern clam garden in the country.

Over two days in August, community members and invited guests passed rocks from hand to hand to build a 2-foot-high, 200-foot-long rock wall on the shore of Kukutali Preserve.

“The rock wall will form a terrace for our sea garden,” said Swinomish tribal member Joe Williams, the tribe’s shellfish community liaison. “As sediment builds up behind the wall and we tend to our garden, it will increase the abundance of all different sorts of sea life, such as shellfish, sea cucumbers, urchins, kelp and seaweed.”

By naturally leveling off the slope of the beach and increasing intertidal biodiversity, the area eventually should support harvestable numbers of clams and oysters, but not for years or even a generation. That increased biodiversity will increase climate resilience. Clam gardens also can adapt to sea level rise and their high concentration of shell fragments can counter some of the effects of ocean acidification.

Swinomish community members, volunteers and staff place rocks along the beach on Kukutali Preserve to create a rock wall for a clam garden. Photo: Kari Neumeyer

As part of the tribe’s climate resilience strategy, the project received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Saltonstall-Kennedy Competitive Grants Program, the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, Washington Sea Grant, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

This traditional shellfish cultivation method dates back thousands of years, but there are no known clam gardens still functioning in the United States. In British Columbia, the W̱SÁNEĆ and Hul’q’umi’num first nations have partnered with Parks Canada to restore clam gardens in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

Over the past several years, the Swinomish Tribe’s fisheries and community environmental health programs organized visits to those sites where tribal members learned about clam garden construction, management and restoration. Tribal staff also worked with the tribal community to select the best site on Kukutali Preserve to provide both ecological and sociocultural benefits to current and future generations.

The tribe owns and manages the Kukutali Preserve uplands with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Preserve lands were acquired in 2010 after many decades of nontribal private ownership. The tidelands surrounding Kukutali Preserve are owned by the United States in trust for the tribe.

“We kind of lost our connection to this particular site,” Williams said. “But since I did my first shellfish survey here, this is now my favorite place on the reservation by far.”

Williams first learned about plans to build a clam garden in 2016 from Lorraine Loomis, who was the tribe’s fisheries manager and NWIFC chairperson until her passing last year. Her grandson, Tandy Grossglass, placed the first rock in the wall in August.

The clam garden is a legacy of Loomis’ advocacy for protecting fish and shellfish resources for future generations. In tribute to Loomis, Williams, along with Swinomish fisheries staff, wore red shirts from the annual Blessing of the Fleet and First Salmon Ceremony, another tradition Loomis helped revitalize.

“We have a closer tie to our first foods than just for sustenance,” said Larry Campbell, Swinomish community environmental health specialist. “It’s a spiritual connection. We’re building a community garden here to help build a better environment for our relatives.”

Above: A 200-foot-long rock wall takes shape on the shore of Kukutali Preserve where the Swinomish Tribe is building a clam garden. Photo: Rob Eis. Story: Kari Neumeyer