Protecting a Way of Life:
The Quinault Indian Nation's Razor Clam Dig
by Elizabeth Weinberg
South from Point Grenville on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the state's rocky shores give way to broad expanses of sand. Buried within these sandy beaches are hundreds of thousands of razor clams—one of the most sought-after shellfish in the state of Washington.
Resource managers work together to ensure that the ocean is healthy and razor clams can be safely gathered for tribal and recreational harvests. Non-tribal recreational harvest, typically scheduled from October through May, occurs on public beaches, while harvest is limited during the summer to allow razor clams to spawn and grow. During the fall and winter when low tides occur during dark hours, thousands of clam diggers brave the elements to dig by lantern or flashlight.
For the indigenous tribes of the Olympic Peninsula, clams have been important for millennia. Quinault Department of Fisheries marine resources scientist Joe Schumacker explains that for the Quinault Indian Nation, razor clams are a way of life. "Historically, they've been a major source of protein and trade items for the tribe," he says. Razor clam harvest is "so important to Quinault, it's part of their culture, it's part of their being."
The Quinault Department of Fisheries directly manages its clam harvest season on Quinault reservation beaches—which are closed to the non-tribal public—with openings throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Like the non-tribal recreational season, razor clam harvest is not allowed during the summer, except for two digs at the end of August. Those commercial harvests are timed to help Quinault families get the income they need for new school supplies and clothes. The clams are either bought on the beach or taken to the Quinault fish processing plant in Taholah, Washington, where they are sold for cash. In addition to commercial harvest, the Quinault Nation holds many subsistence digs throughout the season to feed tribal members and to keep their pantries and freezers full.
The Quinault Indian Nation manages or co-manages approximately 55 miles of beach area and has treaty rights to 2,000 square miles of ocean. Point Grenville Beach, located on the Quinault Reservation, has not always been a clam haven. "During the mid-to-late 2000's, this beach really did not have a good long-term crop of razor clams," says Schumacker. At the time, he explains, dead fish were found on the beach throughout the summer, having likely been killed by hypoxia, or low oxygen conditions, in waters upwelled from the deep. In recent years, though, the hypoxic events have subsided and, Schumacker says, "things have turned around, at least temporarily."
The clam population isn't fully in the clear, though. Carbon dioxide released by the burning of fossil fuels traps heat in the atmosphere, and the ocean is warming as it absorbs some of this heat. A warmer ocean may affect razor clam populations. The increased carbon dioxide is also absorbed by the ocean and changes the ocean's chemistry, making it harder for organisms like clams to form skeletal structures in their larvae or shells as they change into adults. The good news is that while this ocean acidification has already affected Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries, direct impacts to razor clams have not been shown. Still, Schumacker emphasizes that "we need to monitor for [the impacts of ocean acidification] in the future. We see this as a real threat on the horizon."
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary helps the Quinault Indian Nation and other resource managers protect the waters of the Olympic Coast, which in turn can help support a healthy razor clam population. "Sanctuaries like Olympic Coast can serve as sentinel sites that allow for early detection of changing ocean conditions because of natural events and human threats," explains Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Carol Bernthal. "Working with partners like the Quinault Indian Nation, we can take action to better understand how the ocean is changing and take steps to protect these valued resources."
Razor clams have sustained the Quinault Indian Nation for generations. Because their treaty rights extend only to a legally defined area, Schumacker explains, "The tribe has to be very very careful and conservation-minded about their resources and how they manage them. The treaty right doesn't exist anywhere else. Should they (Quinault) lose these razor clams in the treaty area, they can't just move and still have rights to them elsewhere. This goes for all of their treaty resources including salmon, crab and many other species."
Place-based peoples have long known that they must respect the world around them and harvest resources sustainably. Quinault and other tribes in Washington state are leaders in natural resource management and at the forefront of efforts to maintain, improve, and rebuild the habitats that support their treaty resources. On the remote Washington coast, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary shares the waters with four treaty tribes and works together to maintain one of the great coastal areas of the United States. Working together with tribes and researchers, the sanctuary serves as a sentinel site to maintain the precious resources that have supported people throughout history.
As Schumacker says, "The Quinault Indian Nation and all of the tribes know full well that they have to support not just this generation, but all of those generations to come."