Pismo's legendary clams are back — but don't plan a bake just yet

Clams can once again be found at Pismo Beach, but not of a size that can be legally harvested. Cal Poly researchers are studying the population of the clams, which vary in shell color and pattern.
Clams can once again be found at Pismo Beach, but not of a size that can be legally harvested. Cal Poly researchers are studying the population of the clams, which vary in shell color and pattern.

Pismo’s legendary clams disappeared from the beach more than 20 years ago. But now, suddenly, they are back, by the thousands.

Tiny ones, little ones, but none of the 4½-inch ones that are the required size for legal clamming.

“They must be out there, though, to reproduce all these little ones,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Patrol Lt. Todd Tognazzini.

The issue surfaced in 2017 when Fish and Wildlife officers found beachcombers gathering buckets of undersize clams. Even when the clams are big enough, a fishing license is required to harvest them. But none of the clams are even close to legal size — yet.

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Hundreds of people harvest huge clams from Pismo Beach in an undated photo. State Parks

“We issued over 150 citations for undersized clams since June,” Tognazzini said.

Signs are posted at beach entrances, and State Parks is hiring two more interpreters to walk the beach, educating the public about the restrictions.

“Our position is, there is no clamming now,” said Dena Bellman, associate parks and recreation specialist for State Parks' Oceano Dunes District. “There are no legal-size clams.”

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California clam dreaming

Pismo clams are iconic, the classic bivalve clam shell.

As you stand on the beach with waves splashing over your ankles, your head spins a bit. Your legs warn that the sand beneath them is shifting. The wave washes out, taking your feet, and the sand under them, with it.

Wiggle your toes into the sand. That hard, shiny shell your toes find is a Pismo clam.

Their colors and patterns are mesmerizing: from plain solid off-white to dark chocolate brown, some striped, others streaked with dark brown lines on a lighter background.

Pismo Clams were abundant on Central Coast beaches as far back as 25,000 years ago.

Historically, the clams ranged from Half Moon Bay to Socorro Island, Baja California Sur in Mexico, and the three Channel Islands. Currently, they range from Monterey Bay south, including the Channel Islands.

Native American middens show piles of shells 5,000 years ago.

Overharvesting and a resurgence in the local otter population led to Pismo clams becoming all but extinct through the latter part of the 20th century. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pismo clams were so abundant that farmers brought horse-drawn plows out to the beach and dug them up to feed to their hogs. Commercial harvesting for human food was important by 1911, and the harvest was first regulated in 1916.

More than 6 million tons were taken statewide between then and 1947, when the commercial fishery was closed, according to Fish & Wildlife’s Status Report, revised in 2007, the most recent available.

During those years, 1916 to 1947, Pismo clams harvested from spots on the California coast were third in economic importance among shellfish statewide after oysters and abalone.

The average annual catch in California was nearly 100,000 pounds (45 metric tons) with a high of 665,700 pounds (302 metric tons) in 1918.

In the 1930s, Pismo Beach merchants created local scrip out of clamshells. They were good at the service station, the pharmacy, the cigar store, other merchants. Even today, they’re on display at Pismo Beach City Hall.

Despite the closure, however, recreational clammers kept digging.

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Bill Lovern ran a clam and tackle shop in Pismo Beach in the 1940s. He outfitted this 1929 Ford as a Clam Taxi and would drive clammers to their favorite spots on the beach. He also offered 24-hour towing service. State Parks

In 1949, a stretch of beach that had been closed to clamming for 20 years was reopened, attracting 5,000 clammers a day. They dug up more than 2 million clams — and wasted about another million undersized clams on the beach.

Pismo clams showed up again in 1990, flourished long enough to attract clammers, and were again eliminated by 1993.

Toganazzini remembers his father telling about digging clams back in the 1940s, carrying hot sauce with him, and eating them raw along the way. A warden observed him, and although he kept only the limit, the warden knew what was going on.

“We’ll take you to General Hospital and have your stomach pumped,” the warden warned him.

Clam research

Not much is known about how the clams develop. Benjamin Ruttenberg, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Cal Poly, is doing the basic research to find out.

He’s got students out on the beach, sifting sand through quarter-inch mesh to find the small clams, tag them, and follow them to find out how they grow, in six months, a year.

Graduate student Alexandria Marquardt is gathering data on the clams for her master’s project. She’s working on finding a way to tag them, perhaps using dental cement with metal markers.

Cal Poly graduate student Alexandra Marquardt pours water over the sand shoveled into the cart by fellow graduate student Ashley Anne Wilson to expose the Pismo clams that she is measuring and examining for her thesis. Christine Heinrichs

She recruits other students as volunteers to help her dig clams, measure them and record the data. All are welcome, and she’ll teach you how to dig.

“You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know how to dig with a shovel,” she said.

Marquardt’s digging technique is sensitive: She can tell when her fork hits a clam.

Ruttenberg wears chest waders to get out into the lowest part of the intertidal zone, where waves are breaking. Digging at low tide may reach much of the clam habitat, but it’s difficult to know exactly how far out the clams live.

“The waves are rough,” he said. “We really have no idea what’s happening below low tide.”

No one knows how big clams have to be to reproduce, but what research there is shows size makes a difference.

Cal Poly graduate student Alexandra Marquardt, right, sifts a cart of sand with fellow grad student Ashley Anne Wilson to find the Pismo clams that she is measuring and examining for her thesis. Christine Heinrichs

Five-inch females average 15 million eggs, while a 2.9-inch female produced only 4.7 million eggs, according to Fish & Wildlife.

Reproduction is haphazard, with eggs and sperm released into the water to find each other. Probably less than 1 percent survive to become mature clams. One study estimated 120 trillion eggs resulted in 33,000 clams.

“We hope to get a sense of their growth rates and mortality,” said Ruttenberg, who has also studied Pismo clams along the Baja California coast, where he found as many as 2 million to 6 million clams on some of the beaches he sampled. Many are near or greater than legal size in California.

Aside from predation by humans, clam populations can also fall victim to otters and sea gulls.

“There’s plenty of food and habitat,” Ruttenberg said. “What factors are limiting that now? We’re still in observation stage of research. It’s early on in the scientific process.”

Cal Poly student Parmida Pourmandi and Professor Ben Ruttenberg wash away sand to find the small clams to measure and study at Pismo Beach. Christine Heinrichs

Enforcing the limits

To help protect the recovering population, Tognazzini and Fish and Wildlife wardens keep an eye on the beach, and local beachwalkers report if they think someone is taking clams illegally. Wardens write a citation if they find someone with undersize clams.

Monitoring the clams was a bit of an unfamiliar duty for the wardens. In fact, to train them, Tognazzini had to search out his old clam fork, because no one else had one.

Rangers from California State Parks Oceano Dunes District also watch over much of the beach. They’ve partnered with Cal Poly to mentor students and with Fish and Wildlife to enforce the regulations that will allow the little clams to grow up. Regular patrolling and help from local beach regulars are key, State Parks’ Bellman said.

Fish and Wildlife Lt. Todd Tognazzini patrols Pismo Beach to look out for illegal clamming. Christine Heinrichs

“There are 10 of us and 5,000 of them,” Bellman said. “We know who the regulars are. We know what doesn’t look right.”

The fine can be steep, $20 per clam, plus court costs and penalties, adding up to about 140 percent of the base fine. If you’re carrying a bucket of 60 little clams, that adds up.

Recent offenders got their fines reduced after they went to court to protest the citations. But Tognazzini isn’t impressed by protestations of not knowing the clams were protected, or that they needed fishing licenses, or that they didn’t intend to keep the clams, or that the kids like to play with them.

“Individuals’ first reaction when they have illegal clams or too many crabs and we approach is to conceal them from us,” he said. “This is a strange reaction if they don’t know they have done something wrong.”

At a hearing in one case, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Commissioner Tim Covello told a group of five that even those not holding the bucket of more than 60 undersize clams are liable for possession. The fine could add up to more than $6,000 each. He tempered that to $1,000 each, still a hard lesson for a family gathering.

“You simply can't harvest undersize clams,” he told them. “You are putting the entire population at risk.”

State Parks posts Pismo Clam information on signs at beach entrances. Christine Heinrichs

Catch some rays, not some clams

Although signs are posted at beach entrances, not everyone pays attention. State Parks’ role in protecting the clams is educational.

The clams are noted on the Oceano Dunes District map, and information is posted online. Information also is posted everywhere clamming tools are sold. They’ll also have a booth at the Expo at The Expo, an annual trade show that features more than 130 local exhibitors at the Madonna Expo Center on May 16.

“Our outreach is to promote good behavior,” Bellman said.

State Parks interpreters also visit area schools and teach about the clams. They give presentations in the park and will visit other groups that invite them.

“Teachers know we will come out and do a presentation,” said Bellman. “But you have to read. It’s standard practice.”

After education, enforcement is key.

Fish and Wildlife Lt. Todd Tognazzini uses his clam fork to compare a clam to the legally required size of 4½ inches. Christine Heinrichs

“We certainly must have empathy for folks. But we must also protect the resource, and most understand that resources have laws and cannot just be taken at will,” Tognazzini said.

Undersize clams are reburied, and most probably survive the ordeal. Tognazzini either makes the offender rebury them, or finds a kid on the beach who is willing to do it. If he can’t find someone else, he or one of the wardens will do it.

Graduate student Marquardt reburies most of the clams she finds. She takes some back to the lab to dissect, searching for biological signs of reproduction.

On this day, the largest clam she found was 54 mm, a little over 2 inches. As she got closer to the waves, tiny little half-inch clams, recruits, showed up. These recruits may be offspring of only slightly larger clams, which may be reproducing at 1½ to 2 inches.

“Even these small clams are reproducing,” Ruttenberg said. “This is good news.”

Regulators will have to wait and see just how this recovery continues and whether these babies can grow into legal-size clams.

The day may come when clammers will turn over forkfuls of sand to find the buried treasure of Pismo clams. And Pismo Beach will claim its heritage once again.

If you have family memories or photos of clamming for Pismo clams, please share them with us. Send them to christine.heinrichs@gmail.com.

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An undated photo shows people clamming in the surf line at Pismo Beach. State Parks

Christine Heinrichs is a certified California naturalist and writes the Elephant Seal column for The Cambrian.