KAYAK POINT — Biologists and volunteers took to the beach last week to dig up, identify, measure and weigh clams at Kayak Point Park.
The Pacific Shellfish Institute and Stillaguamish River Clean Water District have partnered to study clam populations along that stretch of shoreline. Research biologists with the shellfish institute are investigating whether Kayak Point could be seeded with clam larvae and eventually reopened for public digging.
They plan to have a feasibility study done by the end of the year.
The report will look at clam populations, public interest in digging, cost of seeding the beach and suggestions or concerns from the county, state and Tulalip Tribes, said Mary Middleton, one of two biologists who led the population survey. The clean water district, funded by annual fees from property owners, provided about $9,000 for the project.
Kayak Point once was a popular spot for clam digging but the beach has been closed to public harvest for nearly 20 years, said Camille Speck, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. The beach, pier and playground still are packed on sunny days.
Recreational clam digging seasons for beaches are determined by the estimated populations of Manila and native littleneck clams. Where local tribes have treaty fishing rights, the season is based on how many clams can be sustainably harvested divided by two — half for the tribes and half for public digging.
If there aren’t enough clams, there is no season. A sharp decline in the littleneck population sparked the Kayak Point closure, Speck said. It started with closures on alternating years in the mid-90s before closing to clam diggers completely.
The littleneck population went from declining to plummeting around 2001, said Aimee Christy, a biologist with the Pacific Shellfish Institute. The beach’s history of large harvests and an unusually bad freeze in November that year likely caused the drop, she said.
Kayak Point is an easy to access beach that’s close to cities, so it draws a lot of people. The 1995 clam season, one of the last before closures started, had 1,672 diggers, Speck said.
Popularity puts a lot of strain on clam populations, said Brady Blake, who works with Speck at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. It could cost $10,000 or more a year to seed the beach with manila clams, he said, and the season likely would be short because the beach is so well loved. Blake isn’t ready to say whether it would be possible to reopen the beach for clam digging.
“A decade ago, it was somewhat realistic,” he said. “We didn’t quite have the pressure on the resource that we have now.”
Kayak Point is one of the busiest beaches along Port Susan. The bay’s shoreline once was fertile ground for clam digging, but channelizations, diking of the lower Stillaguamish River in the 1940s and agricultural runoff did a lot of damage to shellfish beds close to shore, said Mike McHugh, shellfish program manager for the Tulalip Tribes.
The tribes have fishing rights in the area and harvest shellfish from Vashon Island up to the Canadian border. They have not developed a clam fishery in Port Susan because it’s not viable with the low shellfish populations there, he said. Many of the other beds are richer than those near Kayak Point.
There is some crab in the deeper waters of Port Susan, farther from the silted up mouth of the Stillaguamish River, McHugh said, “but as far as hardshell clams go, nothing is really there.”
The Pacific Shellfish Institute hopes to get specific numbers for Kayak Point to see whether the clam population is recovering, declining or stagnant. Middleton and Christy led a group of 12 volunteers for the population survey.
They covered about 3,000 feet of shoreline, with plots set about 100 feet apart. Teams dug a foot into the wet sand at low tide and loaded clams into orange mesh bags. The bags went into coolers. Volunteers then identified each clam’s species, measured and weighed them, and recorded the data in a table. They counted varnish, Manila, macoma, butter clams and cockles along with littleneck clams. After being examined, the shellfish were returned to the beach.
“You guys don’t have a lot of recreational shellfish beaches around here for public use, so we just want to see what it would take for this beach to reopen,” Middleton said.
Volunteers Bruce Henson, 59, and his 11-year-old grandson, Nolan, live in Smokey Point and often visit Kayak Point Park. Henson used to dig for clams around the bay but the research dig was Nolan’s first chance.
“There are very few opportunities in the area anymore,” Henson said. “I just hope this research would eventually help with the clam population. There are a few, but it’s nothing like it was 30 years ago.”
Volunteers learned a lot about clams, Nolan said. By the end of Thursday, the first day of the survey, the group had dug up, studied and returned about 200 clams.
“I think there’s not a lot of clams,” Nolan said. “But there are some big ones.”
Herald writer Chris Winters contributed to this report
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.