Wind and rain hammer the coast in the early morning hours at Copalis Beach in Ocean City. But Dawn Radonski is already out in her waders, waiting for the perfect moment to pull a five-gallon bucket of saltwater from the waves. She’s a harmful algal bloom specialist with the Quinault Indian Nation, and she’s sampling for a certain kind of especially toxic algae.
“The pseudo-nitzschia,” Radonski says. “I look underneath the microscope, and I count all the pseudo-nitzschia that are in there. And if there's a lot of them, we run them through a toxin filter to see if they're producing toxins in the water.”
She does this every week, taking the samples back to her lab from four beaches. The Quinault tribe monitors this section of the coast as part of the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Blooms partnership, or ORHAB. It was created in June 1999 in response to seemingly random closures of shellfish harvest due to outbreaks of marine biotoxins. Its data helps predict the outbreaks, to protect people from potentially severe health effects.
Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, a neurotoxin that can be fatal for humans and other vertebrates. It's invisible and has no taste or smell. It doesn’t bother the razor clams or the Dungeness crabs that eat them, but when it reaches dangerous levels in their flesh, the state shuts down any harvest.
Razor clamming has been off limits on Washington’s coast for more than a month. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife abruptly closed the season in October, after health officials found unsafe levels of domoic acid in the clams. And last week, they closed recreational crabbing on the central coast after tests showed the crabs had ingested high levels of the acid as well.
Radonski says when the toxic algae show up in the water, all they can do is hope that winds blow it offshore and not into the coastal zone, where its presence means bad news.
“We can't dig clams, we can't dig them to eat — and people (can't) make money,” she says.
There’s a commercial harvest run by the tribe and a subsistence harvest that allows individuals to take home up to 100 clams per tribal member per tide. She says in her family – as in many others here – this is a time of year when they would normally be canning and smoking them. But the season was shut down on Oct. 21. No one is allowed to dig until the toxin levels drop.
'OPTIMISM FOR A HUGE CROP'
“The big pity is we think we got the biggest crop of clams we've had in three decades and we can't take them — three decades,” says Joe Shumacker, the marine resources scientist for the Quinault Indian Nation.
He says surveys by the tribe and the state this summer showed record numbers of healthy clams growing in the sand.
“We had total optimism for a huge crop of clams for the Quinault members to harvest this year,” Schumacker says. “And now because of this harmful algal bloom that's come ashore and the domoic acid toxin levels that have come into the clams, we can't dig them.”
Similar conditions prompted season-long closures of Washington’s coastal beaches twice in the 1990s and in 2002. And then in 2015, the first major marine heat wave off the coast caused so much toxic algae, it was found not just in clams and crabs, but also in marine mammals and seabirds along the entire West Coast. The event was nicknamed "The Blob."
This year, Schumacker says, they’re seeing the marine heat again — and a relatively isolated yet extremely dense bloom of pseudo-nitzschia that is extremely toxic.
“Honestly, the marine heat wave issue is a real problem. It seems to be that we're getting larger offshore blooms of pseudo-nitzschia associated with warmer waters,” he says.
Schumacker says he wouldn't be a marine scientist if he didn’t worry about current global ocean conditions and the effects of global warming.
“There's no two ways about it. The amount of carbon in the atmosphere is warming things up. That's warming the ocean up. And we seem to have more blooms with warmer oceans. And that seems to be a correlation that we're seeing on this coast.”
But sometimes the prevailing winds blow the toxic algae out to sea instead of into the coast. That’s always something to hope for. Because, even when the bloom ends and it’s no longer in the water – as is the case now — once the acid from the algae gets into the clams, they hang on to it for long periods of time.
“We could be unable to dig these clams for months and months and months. Could be the entire season,” Schumacker says.
He’s standing near a beach entrance that he says on clam digging days will have mile-long lines of cars backing up to it – and thousands of people taking part.
And on their clamming days, tribal members can sell what they dig to Quinault Pride Seafood, the tribe’s processing company.
MORE THAN MONEY
With a single forklift moving a few boxes across an empty warehouse floor, general manger Sonny Davis gives me a tour of their facilities in Taholah. He says it’s a slow time of year between runs of salmon and steelhead – and it’s especially slow now.
“This is the clam-processing room,” he says, as he opens the door to a dark area with several rows of countertops and sinks.
“Normally we'd have probably 15 or 20 people in here cleaning clams, vacuum-packing them and getting them ready to freeze or sell fresh," Davis says.
The clam harvest is second only to salmon here. Last year, they processed a million pounds, or about 5 million clams, brought in by individual tribal members, who dig them by hand.
“Yeah, it's a huge disappointment. A lot of folks are really looking forward to clam digging and the income that that brings to the individual tribal members and households in our community,” he says.
The company pays $2.25 per pound. They buy the clams right off the beach. Tribal members team up and race each other. Davis says it’s an important seasonal ritual that’s unique to the Quinault tribe.
“Families usually dig clams together: cousins, brothers, uncles, aunts, grandmas,” he says. “And then a lot of times people will dig together. They'll have their own digging partners. So two people dig together, and they'll compete against each other to see who can dig the most clams.”
He says an important milestone for diggers is getting your first 100 pounds.
“And then once you dig that, then 200 pounds and then 300 pounds,” he says. “And then that's a kind of a rare occurrence because it's so difficult to do. But there are even some of our younger people that have dug 400 pounds or even approaching 500 pounds in a tide, in a four-hour period.”
And in a good season, they can do that for five days in a row. Davis says he started digging when he was 8 or 9 years old and started doing it for the money as a teenager. But he didn’t get his first 100 till he was in his early 30s. He says it’s not just athletic young men who get good at it.
“I was in my early 20s before I ever outdug my grandmother, Deedee, and I'd come home and I'd ask her, 'How many pounds did you dig, Gram?' And she'd tell me, and I'd say, ‘Dang it! She beat me again!’ "
He remembers the breakfasts they’d share of fried clams and pancakes as the best ever, after coming home famished from the dig. Now, all the tribe can do is wait for health officials to give an all clear.
“We're just kind of hoping for the best at this point. It's going to be a huge economic impact for us if we don't get to dig clams this year,” he says.
Right now, the only people who are able to dig clams are the shellfish managers and technicians who send them to the lab for testing.
'I SENSE IT IN MY OWN SOUL'
Back at Copalis Beach, the rain has finally stopped, but the evening wind is howling. It’s low tide, as Clayton Parson and Dan Ayres from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife set out to get their quota.
“After all this rain, it’s really tough to get 'em to show,” Parson says as he scans the sand with his flashlight. “Smaller ones will typically be up feeding, and the larger ones will typically be a little deeper."
“All we have to do is dig 12 clams. So if they’re showing, this will go real quick,” says Ayres.
They get them in less than 10 minutes – even working several sections of the beach to get a good mix of depths and sizes. The ocean conditions are a double-edged sword: they produce a bumper crop of clams along with some of the most potent toxic algae this coast has ever seen.
Ayres gazes wistfully at the golden shells and wiggling bright white flesh. He’s the state’s coastal shellfish manager and has been for decades. He says this population of razor clams is one of the healthiest and best he has seen in his entire career.
“They’re so pretty, aren’t they?” he asks. “I just love 'em.”
He grew up clamming with his whole family in Aberdeen and says his grandparents survived the Great Depression, in part, through clamming. But it's not available right now, in the economic crisis brought on COVID-19, even though it was attracting record numbers till October, when the toxic algae shut it down.
“You see a vehicle pull up, and mom and dad and the kids and grandma, grandpa all get out – or maybe three or four vehicles all together. And I mean, where else can you do that?” Ayres says.
“You don't do that deer hunting, and you don't do that salmon fishing. So, it's a real loss socially. The social-economic impact of these blooms is hard to define, but it's definitely something that occurs. And I sense it in my own soul.”
Ayres would love nothing more than to see the beaches open for digging. He says he gets calls all the time from people making plans to come home or visit and wanting to include razor clamming in their trip. They’re all asking him when it will be safe again. People are especially interested this year because it’s an activity that can be done safely during COVID-19.
“I've had a ton of phone calls – even today – from people hoping they can continue their plans for New Year's Eve,” he says.
Clam digging isn’t always possible on Dec. 31 – it depends on the tide tables. This year, it’s theoretically possible. Ayers says lots of people like to stay after they dig their quota of clams and build campfires up and down the beach.
“And fire off fireworks and have their clams and just have a ball,” he says.
“It's a very Northwest way to celebrate the new year. And I think – I'm worried that's not going to happen this year.”
Health officials have to see two consecutive samples of the clams at safe levels – taken seven to 10 days apart – before they can reopen the season.
CORRECTION, Dec. 4: This story has been updated to reflect that the biggest crowds for clamming are on the state’s recreational digging days.