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Razor clams, geoducks battle to be WA’s top clam

By Conrad Swanson, The Seattle Times
Published: February 8, 2024, 8:06am

Soon, in Southwest Washington, the campaign will ramp up.

No, nothing as trivial as a presidential campaign. This is far more important. This is the campaign to become Washington’s official state clam.

It’s a two-clam race, but a clear front-runner has emerged: the Pacific razor clam, or Siliqua patula.

Though the contest is far from over. It’ll stretch into next year.

State Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles, sponsored a bill this legislative session that would declare the razor clam the official state clam. The bill cited the clam’s cultural, historical and economic significance across the state. But lawmakers in the House’s State Government and Tribal Relations Committee sidelined it, in part, Chapman said, because geoduck “lovers” felt their clam deserved consideration, too.

Early efforts fall short

The push to name razor clams as Washington’s defining clam started with David Berger, who loves them so much he wrote a book about the species, “Razor Clams: Buried Treasure of the Pacific Northwest.” He knows the clams inside and out, and he speaks fondly — even reverently — of their historical and cultural significance.

Berger lobbied lawmakers to declare razor clams as the state clam a few years ago, but he ran into similar pushback, though for him there’s no competition. Geoducks (pronounced gooey-ducks) don’t have the same fanfare, nor are they in the historical or archaeological record for the region. He bristles at the notion of competition between the two for the top clam spot.

“It’s sort of like saying apples should not be the state fruit because we also grow pears,” Berger said.

Pacific razor clams boast a long, narrow and sharp (hence the name) shell, can grow over a foot in length and live longer than a decade. They’re filter feeders living in the sandy beaches in the intertidal zone.

For centuries, Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest relied on them as an important source of food, Berger said. That tradition continued when pioneers settled in the area, and it transformed into an economic boom that to this day still draws families and friends to Washington’s coasts to dig for razor clams.

“Every year, tens of thousands of people go razor clamming. It’s part of what makes the Northwest the Northwest,” Berger said. “It’s sort of Christmas and New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July all rolled into one.”

This year’s push

To improve the razor clam’s chances for a shot at the title this year, Berger contacted Kelli Hughes-Ham, who teaches at Hilltop Middle School in Ilwaco, Pacific County.

Nothing helps push these sorts of initiatives through like a group of young, smiling students, Hughes-Ham said. Plus, it’s a huge win for her students.

“I want to get these kids exposed to the legislative process but also to have them realize what a very special thing these clams are,” Hughes-Ham said. “People come from miles away to our community to dig them.”

The students drew up posters lobbying the lawmakers in favor of the razor clams (and away from geoducks), and Hughes-Ham said they had planned to track the bill’s progress through the statehouse and possibly even put together a field trip to the Capitol.

“We didn’t get to track the bill very far, of course,” she said.

Don’t count out the geoduck

But geoducks also deserve to be in the conversation, said Bill Dewey, director of public affairs for Taylor Shellfish Farms. They’re an important food source, too, particularly as an exported commodity, he said.

“They both are iconic clams,” Dewey said. “They both have rightful arguments for the state clam claim.”

Geoducks are, Dewey opined, also far more photogenic.

The, well, phallic-looking clams have amassed something of a cult following. They’re the quirky mascot of The Evergreen State College in Olympia. They’ve been featured by popular television hosts like Mike Rowe and the late Anthony Bourdain, and they’re known as something of a delicacy, if also a culinary oddity.

Geoducks, or Panopea generosa, can weigh up to 7 pounds and can live a century or longer. Their habitat is in much deeper water than razor clams, and they can burrow several feet down into the seafloor.

They’re also unique in their commercial viability in Washington, said Jim Gibbons, founder and CEO of Seattle Shellfish, as opposed to razor clams, which can be found up and down the West Coast.

Gibbons was one of the louder voices in favor of geoducks a few years ago, but these days he’s less passionate about the competition.

“Maybe I’ve mellowed in my old age,” he said.

The existential threat

However the two sides each feel, razor clams and geoducks have a few things in common, one of them being that climate change is threatening them.

Increasingly common and intense marine heat waves — compounded by humans burning fossil fuels — kill shellfish (and seabirds) by the millions.

The rising ocean temperatures also lead to toxic algae blooms. Filter feeders, like razor clams, then eat the toxins, which can spell trouble up the food chain. It can be harmful or even fatal to people. In recent years, the toxic blooms have delayed, canceled or ended razor clam harvests early on Washington’s coast.

Then, growing doses of CO2 mixing with the world’s oceans causes the waters to become more corrosive. Ocean acidification, as it’s called, hampers the ability of clams and other shellfish to form their shells and sometimes to reproduce.

“They can still build a shell in those environments, but it takes more energy from them,” said Ryan Crim, hatchery director for the nonprofit Puget Sound Restoration Fund.

This leads to smaller and weaker clams, Crim said.

These dangers aren’t limited to razor clams and geoducks, Crim said. All sorts of bivalves and sea creatures are at risk.

Dozens of shellfish species around the world also face a type of contagious, leukemialike cancer first discovered in Salish Sea cockles in 2018, noted Michael Metzger, a scientist with the Pacific Northwest Research Institute. The disease hasn’t yet been detected in razor clams or geoducks.

Scientists must continue to study the effects of climate change on sea creatures and investigate whether there are ways to prevent the worst of them, Metzger said.

Commercially farmed shellfish might fare a little better than those in the wild because farmers can treat their waters to help the creatures form their shells, Dewey said. He estimated that Taylor Shellfish might harvest a million pounds of geoducks this year.

Gibbons, with Seattle Shellfish, figured his company will harvest a little less but agreed the operation is better guarded against climate change.

Don’t lose all hope, though, Crim said. One positive aspect of the local sea life is that the Pacific Ocean is naturally more acidic than other waters.

“We’re kind of crossing our fingers and hoping the native species we have here have more built-in resilience to them,” he said.

Littleneck clams, cockles and Olympia oysters are among the species that might fare better than others, he said. The same goes for Manila clams, which are technically an invasive species but are thriving in the area, he said.

Scientists are also examining whether there are ways to protect local waters against the worst effects of climate change, Crim said. Perhaps growing kelp in certain spots could lessen the effects of ocean acidification, he estimated. More study is needed.

Bivalve support?

Meanwhile, teacher Hughes-Ham said she’s developing her strategy for the next legislative session.

Chapman said he’s happy to reintroduce the razor clam bill again, and Hughes-Ham said she’ll put her students to work on their clam campaign even earlier next year, drawing up more art and lobbying lawmakers.

Perhaps the razor clam boosters could even negotiate with the geoduck group, she said.

“Maybe they could be the state bivalve or the state export,” she said.

Washington already has a state oyster, the Olympia oyster, or Ostrea lurida.

Just so long as razor clams can be Washington’s state clam, Hughes-Ham said. Not only would the declaration count as a major civics win for her students, but it would be a victory for the Long Beach community.

“We just want to get people excited, get people out to the coast and get people to realize what a special resource we have out here,” she said.

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