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.
Since the late 1980’s the commercial season has been a fixed six weeks, generally beginning in May. The commercial fishery opens after the close of the spring recreational season. Staggering the commercial and recreational seasons hinders the sale of recreationally harvested clams to the commercial market.
Since 1975, landings from the Willapa Spits have fluctuated from a high in 2002 of nearly 120,000 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.