For the first time this year, a portion of the Oregon Coast is open for razor clamming.
As of Friday, the beaches from Tillamook Head, south of Seaside, to Cascade Head, north of Lincoln Beach, have been open to diggers. This stretch of coastline includes Indian Beach in Ecola State Park and Cannon Beach.
High levels of the marine toxin domoic acid in clam meat kept digs closed until now, but three rounds of testing this summer revealed those levels had dropped below the threshold established by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Unless toxin levels shoot back up, the areas open now will remain open.
People have yet to go out and dig their limit, however — the tides have not been low enough. These low tides will occur next week.
The areas that are open are not as popular for clam digging as Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula or Clatsop County’s wide, open beaches near Fort Stevens State Park. The beds are much smaller — some are only 50-yards wide — and not as productive, said Matt Hunter, shellfish and phytoplankton project leader with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“They’re nothing compared to what we find on the Clatsop beaches, but there are razor clams out there,” Hunter said.
Harvest remains closed from Cascade Head south to the California border and from Tillamook Head north to the Columbia River. This last area, known as the Clatsop beach area, is always closed from July 15 through Sept. 30 for razor clam conservation regardless of whether or not biotoxins are present. The earliest that razor clamming could open there is Oct. 1, depending on domoic acid levels in clams.
Now the main concern is the lack of recruitment — or young clams — fishery managers are seeing up and down Oregon’s beaches.
Often razor clam demographics resemble a pyramid. Massive numbers of young clams form the wide base of the pyramid, but as you go up through the age classes, the number of clams starts to drop. A tiny collection of very old clams will form the pointed tip of the pyramid.
This season, those demographics resemble a diamond, Hunter said. The usual huge base of young clams isn’t present at all, nor are there many old clams. Instead, 3- and 4-year-old clams make up the bulk of the population.
Washington shellfish managers have noted a similar drop in young clams in certain beaches along that state’s coast.
“So the good news is the clams you’re going to find are big,” Hunter said. “The bad news is” — in the areas open now — “there aren’t very many of them.”
Though the population shift appears particularly drastic this year, fishery managers have seen these kinds of dips before. They seem to coincide with the ebb and flow of large climate cycles like El Nino.
The Oregon Department of Agriculture plans to continue testing for shellfish toxins weekly as tides permit. The department requires two consecutive clean tests to reopen any area closed due to high domoic acid levels.