Razor clam digging in Washington State began as a commercial fishery around the turn of the century. Commercial digging had already started in Oregon State and later transferred to Washington in 1898 because of the wide sandy beaches and large stocks of razor clams. In 1905, the first regulations establishing seasons for commercial digging were passed. The fishery took place on coastal beaches including Long Beach, Grayland Beach, Copalis, and the area from Iron Springs to Moclips. In many cases, there were larges canneries located in adjoining communities.
Diggers harvested razor clams using specialized shovels; the use of mechanical harvesting equipment was never allowed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The season historically was nearly year-round but most digging would take place between April and July due to weather, tides, and clam condition.
By 1906 there was one company reporting landings of approximately 368,000 pounds (based on 80 pounds per case, 4,600 cases). This equaled 1.4 million clams using an average of four clams per pound. In 1915, landings totaled 67,000 cases or 21 million clams. Landings and effort fluctuated greatly until 1927 when the commercial pack began declining. Many factors contributed to the decline of the commercial fishery. These factors included: large increases in recreational effort, unsuccessful competition with east coast clams in the marketplace and an increase in the personal use of clams harvested with a commercial license.
In 1942, in recognition that some conservation measures were in order, the first annual quotas were established for the commercial fishery. Over the course of the next 20 years management of the commercial fishery continued with annual quotas set for the various commercial beaches. During this same time, the recreational fishery was growing at a tremendous rate. The transition from a primarily commercial fishery to one that was predominantly recreational was completed in the late 1960’s.
The last major commercial fishery conducted on an ocean beach was in 1968. Closing the beaches to commercial digging did not eliminate all commercial opportunity, left were the detached islands of sand at the mouth of Willapa Bay known as the Willapa Spits.
Commercial use of razor clams has varied based on the size or condition of the clam stocks. When the clams were small or in poor shape, they were primarily used for crab bait. When large and heavy, a greater percentage of the clams went to fresh markets for human consumption. These clams would go mostly to coastal restaurants or markets with some going to Seattle’s Pike Place Market. In recent years, commercially harvested razor clams have mainly been used for crab bait in the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. Local crab fishers consider the razor clam vital to optimizing crab harvest. Other types of bait such as herring are used but aren’t considered nearly as effective.
In 1921, the first commercial license was established for $1.00. The fee was increased to $5.00 in 1947. The low license price is attributed with complicating management of the fishery. Even after 1968, when the only beach open for commercial harvest was the Willapa Spits, many sport diggers purchased a commercial license to circumvent recreational limits. This practice peaked in 1979 when WDFW issued over 1,600 commercial licenses. However, an examination of fish tickets showed that only 3.1% of these license holders reported commercial landings. The Washington State legislature responded in 1983 and set the license fee at $50 for residents and $100 for non-residents. The license fee increase reduced the number of “commercial-sport” diggers using the commercial license for personal use. The highest number of licenses issued before 1983 was 1,695. This dropped to 200-380 in subsequent years.
In 1994, the Washington State Legislature raised the license fees to $130 for residents and $185 for non-residents. This increase was the result of a mandate to the Legislature to establish a single, consistent fee structure for commercial licenses. The total license fee remained unchanged for 18 years until 2012 when a $105 administrative processing fee was added to the license cost, thus raising the total fee to $235 for residents and $290 for non-residents.
The detached spits where the commercial fishery occurs is on tidelands owned by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As proprietor of these state-owned tidelands DNR must consider the potential long-term impacts of activities, authorize access, and seek compensation for use of the public’s natural resources, especially when used for commercial purposes. All commercial uses on state-owned aquatic lands require a right-of-entry authorization (ROE) for the use of these lands and to harvest public resources. Prior to 2012 WDFW obtained the ROE from DNR and the fishery operated under that blanket authorization. In 2012 DNR required the individual harvesters obtain a ROE from DNR prior to accessing the Willapa spits. This was to ensure that best management practices (BMP) are applied at the site as well as compensating the state for use of the tidelands. The BMP’s help harvesters protect critical habitat for other species, such as the western snowy plover. Rights of entry for the 2012 season were issued at no cost to harvesters and in 2013 a $100 fee was implemented for the ROE.
From the late 1980’s to 2009 the commercial season had been a fixed six weeks, generally beginning in May. In 2012 changes were implemented to stabilize the opening date of the fishery and the season length. In prior years, three factors determined the start date of the commercial razor clam fishery: the end of the recreational razor clam season, biotoxin levels, and tides. By practice, the commercial fishery opened only after the end of the recreational fishery. WDFW believed that by separating the two fisheries it would make it more difficult for sport diggers to illegally dig, possess or sell commercial quantities of clams, and it also simplified recovering clams in the event of a Washington Department of Health (DOH) product recall. In addition, because the Willapa Spits were legally open to sport harvest when Long Beach was open, keeping the fisheries separate was a way to prevent a potential influx of sport harvesters on the spits while a commercial fishery is underway.
In the past few years the coastal recreational razor clam seasons have extended well into May due to lower than expected effort/catch levels. This lower catch is not due to a lack of clams but rather to poor weather conditions which limited digger success during scheduled recreational digs. As a result the commercial season opener varied from year to year to accommodate the later recreational digs and the fishery itself was closed in-season to digging when recreational harvest occurred. The constantly shifting opening date and in-season closures resulted in much uncertainty for processors and harvesters alike. WDFW was often only able to give a general time frame on when the season could open and often the official notice to participants was only a few days from the actual opener.
In order to create a stable and orderly commercial fishery WDFW decided that beginning in 2012 the commercial fishery would open for eight weeks on May 1 of each year regardless of the status of the recreational fishery. May 1 is a compromise date as some diggers want to begin in mid-April when clam condition is better and some diggers expressed interest in a later start in mid-May when the weather is generally better. The processors generally supported a May 1 start. To avoid any conflicts between the two fisheries WDFW removed the detached spits from the definition of Razor Clam Area 1 (Long Beach) and gave it its own separate area, Razor Clam Area 2. (See: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/wac/default.aspx?cite=220-56-360.) This separate designation prohibits any recreational harvest on the detached spits and allows both fisheries to run concurrently.
In 2014 after consultation with processors and diggers, the season opener was moved up one month, from May 1 to April 1. Traditionally the fishery has been a bait fishery for Dungeness crab but in recent years the percentage being utilized for the fresh market has been slowly increasing. The reasoning for this change in opening dates was to add more value to the fishery by allowing more opportunity to dig clams while they are in prime condition before spawning.
Since 1975, landings from the Willapa Spits have fluctuated from a high in 2014 of 281,031 pounds to a low in 1987 of 103 pounds. Total pounds landed in recent years have been quite strong compared to the long-term average. However, the number of razor clams harvested in the earlier years may actually be much larger because of unreported landings by the “commercial-sport” digger.
Harvest opportunity and success fluctuates with clam abundance, tides, and with the amount of exposed sand on the Willapa Spits. Accessible only by water, the Willapa Spits are located at the mouth of Willapa Bay. Comprised of a series of ever changing sand bars these spits have ranged in size from a few hundred yards to almost a mile across. Each year all or part of any given sand bar may disappear and new bars form in the tremendous tidal current. Because there are no jetties to restrict the flow of sand, the area remains very dynamic.