I take a trek out to a rocky shore on Vancouver Island with some local scientists to dig for a dinner of native little neck clams, and to learn how coastal First Nations cultivated clam gardens here.
By CINDA CHAVICH
At low tide, the beach looks rocky and muddy, but it’s literally alive with food — the white shells of sea-tumbled oysters littered across forests of barnacles, giant moon snails and hundreds of depressions where clams lay buried.
“The First Nations have an expression on the coast – ‘when the tide is out, the table is set’,” says Brian Kingzett, plunging his shovel into the muck and uncovering a handful of Manilas, littlenecks and fat butter clams. “There’s a whole level of protein here under the sand, chowder for four, in a square foot.
But you have to know where — and how — to dig. As a recent transplant to the island, with deep prairie roots, I’m keen to learn more about foraging for shellfish on the beach. And here at the end of Bayne’s Sound, the channel that separates Vancouver Island from nearby Denman Island, is a good place to start.
Known as the shellfish capital of B.C., this narrow strip of sand is where the oyster industry has flourished for decades, in tiny towns like Mud Bay, Deep Bay and the now famous Fanny Bay. And it’s here where coastal people came to live and harvest clams, the deep layers of discarded clamshells called shell middens, just beneath the surface of the shore, evidence of more than 4,000 years of human habitation.
Now it’s also the site of the newly-opened Deep Bay Marine Field Station, where scientists like Kingzett study shellfish, especially the native geoduck clam, Panopea generosa, the largest clam in the world.
“Last year we had an experimental hatchery for geoduck,” he says, holding several miniature geoduck “babies” destined for geoduck aquaculture experiments in his outstretched palm. “Half of all the shellfish in B.C. come from this area — it’s the same reason the Coast Salish were here.”
And it’s a good place to begin your own shellfish studies, whether handling local species in the touch tank or heading down to the beach at low tide.
GARDENS OF CLAMS
You can’t go far along a beach or in a kayak before you run into the evidence that coastal people have been harvesting shellfish on Vancouver Island for thousands of years. I first marveled at the deep layers of compressed white shell middens while paddling along the shores of Valdes Island, but I’ve also seen the tell tale bleached layers in the shoreline along The Gorge, right in the centre of the city.
It’s a reminder that First Nations relied on clams as a food source, and that these beautiful, and tasty bivalves are still alive and well, if hidden, along the water’s edge. There’s even some evidence that early coastal people encouraged these crops of wild edibles to flourish – clearing beaches of rocks to create “clam gardens” in protected coves.
According to the Sport Fishing Institute of British Columbia, both big butter clams and native littleneck clams are common in protected beaches, bays and estuaries along the BC coast. Manila clams are an imported species, found along Georgia Straits, near Bella Bella, and on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The aptly named razor clam, with its long narrow shell reminiscent of a vintage straight razor, is only found on surf-swept beaches, like Long Beach outside Tofino or on the rugged coast of Haida Gwaii.
And though most clams sit just below the surface of the sand at low tide — a mere 4-10 inches — it takes some sleuthing to find them.
HOW, WHERE AND WHEN TO DIG
I asked retired DFO biologist and marine science writer Rick Harbo to help school me in the finer points of shellfish foraging, and we met on a beach that’s designated as a “recreational shellfish reserve” near Nanaimo.
Author of several great books, Harbo knows a lot about clams, an awful lot. Like any good sport fisher, he’s has some good pointers for a landlubber like me.
First, in these parts at least, you need a license to harvest clams, mussels and other mollusks on the shore, the same Tidal Waters Sport Fishing License needed for any fish or shellfish which costs about $23 annually for a BC resident. And while you’ll find fishing guides to take you out for salmon or halibut, when you’re digging clams, it’s a DIY proposition.
Check the tide tables online and plan your clam dig around the lowest tides — you’ll have an hour or two on each side of the low tide to dig.
A shovel or a rake are the implements of choice. And you’ll need a food-safe bucket to collect the clams you find.
Rubber boots or hip waders are de rigueur for clam digs — it can be a dirty, muddy business.
I quickly had my visions of sifting through the soft sands of beautiful wide beaches (think Parksville or Qualicum Beach) dashed. Clams don’t like soft sand, says Harbo. It’s the rockier, muddier corners of those coastal coves where you’ll find clams, the shallow mud flats. And, due to closures for natural toxins (paralyitic shellfish poisoning or red tide) and other contaminants, you’ll need to do your research carefully before you decide where to dig.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find areas for clamming that are not contaminated,” says Harbo, noting clams, oysters, mussels and other bivalves are “filter feeders” that concentrate contaminants in their bodies, so are the aquatic “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to biotoxins.
Wild clams are really no different than farmed clams, at least those that are harvested by hand on the island. We watched a group of men digging sacks of Manila clams on the same beach where we found our clams — just a few hundred yards away in a section of the beach that has been leased to a commercial fishing company. Though some of these companies may ‘seed’ their beaches with juvenile clams to harvest later, Harbo says clams release so much seed into the water when they spawn that it drifts many miles, so even seeded beaches will have a good population of wild native species.
But you can’t always assume an area is safe for recreational harvest even if you see commercial harvesters on the beach. Many commercially harvest wild clams go through a process called depuration to remove pathogens, viruses and bacteria, and are tested and certified safe before going to market.
Always check for closures with the local DFO office — people have died from eating contaminated clams so don’t ignore posted warning signs.
That said, you’ll find clams in the Baynes Sound and Nanoose Bay recreational shellfish reserves, or on the beaches around Courtenay, just make sure to observe the commercial harvesting leases, marked by red concrete blocks or boulders.
SEA SHELLS ON THE SEA SHORE
The beach at Nanoose Bay is littered with evidence of clam colonies — piles of bleached white and iridescent purple shells tumbled together at the high water line — a sign it’s a promising place. We are after Littlenecks and Manilas and it isn’t long before we’ve scooped up our limit.
The big butter clams, once a major fishery on the west coast of Vancouver Island, are here, too, and, because of their size, are easy to find at low tides. But butter clams store toxins in their tissues longer, six month or even a year, and on many beaches, butter clam harvesting is closed year round. Best to leave them behind if you’re unsure.
Head to the intertidal zone, sink your shovel into the sand and turn over a few scoops. It’s like searching for new potatoes in the garden. If you’re in a good spot you’ll soon find clams. A small rake is useful to comb through the muddy sand and separate the shellfish from the rocks.
The Littleneck is the native species, light coloured, small and round. The Manila clam, which arrived on our coast with oyster “seed” from Japan in the 1930s, is tasty and preferred as its more likely to open cleanly when cooked. Manilas are slightly oblong, mottled and a bit bigger than Littlenecks, but it’s not easy to tell them apart.
Butter clams are larger – 2-3 inches across — and you might find the purple mahogany or Savoury clam, too. Giant geoduck clams and horse clams, with their long siphons, are buried much deeper and only accessible on very low tides.
We didn’t have the warm, sunny afternoon of my dreams for harvesting clams — our early spring outing was a little chilly and foggy, typical west coast weather. But it’s always great to be out by the water, and a clam dig isn’t a huge time commitment. We collected 150 clams in less than an hour and we carried them home in a bucket of sea water, then let them purge out any grit for a few hours.
We gave them a good scrub, steamed them in a little white wine until they opened, and feasted on the tender, sweet meat, dipped in melted butter for added effect.
Harbo is a clam digger of note and, like all fishermen, has some secret spots in the Gulf Islands that are only accessible by boat. He alluded to a “very good beach” on Galiano, and a few spots on Valdes and Cortes islands to check for clams.
If you plan properly, or can find a local forager who will take you along, a clam dig is a great activity for all ages on a sunny afternoon.
Because, really, what’s more fun than finding a delicious free dinner in the dirt?
IF YOU GO:
GET THE GUIDE
Pick up A Field Guide to Seashells and Shellfish of the Pacific Northwest, by Rick Harbo, and inexpensive, waterproof pamphlet filled with colourful pictures to help you identify the shellfish you find. Harbo’s books, Pacific Reef & Shore or Tidepool and Reef are also great guides for identifying common plants and animals in the intertidal zone.
To find good beaches for clam digging – and to make sure there’s no deadly red tides or other toxins affecting local shellfish — contact the local Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) office. Check the DFO website for updated information (http://notices.dfo-mpo.gc.ca)
COOK YOUR CATCH
Wash the mud and dirt off the clams, then place them in a food-safe bucket and cover them with sea water — in 4-8 hours, after they’ve spit out any sand and grit, they’re ready to cook.
Small Manila or littleneck clams are easiest. Just pop them into a big pot with a splash of white wine or beer and some minced shallots and garlic, then cover and steam for 5-9 minutes, discarding any that don’t open. Divide the steamed clams into serving bowls, and strain the cooking liquid into a clean pot, leaving any sand behind. Whisk in a few tablespoons of cold butter, some parsley or chives, and pour back over, then pass some fresh baguette to sop up the sauce, and dig in!
Larger butter clams and razor clams should be blanched, shucked and cleaned before cooking — the meat will be chewier, so you’ll want to fillet the body before breading and quickly frying, or chop them for fritters or chowder.
If you’re lucky enough to have your own beach, you can steam a mess of clams over a campfire, with the requisite seaweed, potatoes and corn, even a few Dungeness crabs. Or recreate the clambake at home, layered in a heavy pot, and steamed over high heat on the stove.
High in minerals and ultra low in fat, clams are good for you, too.
This feature was originally published in YAM magazine.