Overharvesting closes clam beach at Freeland

"Clam diggers who walked away from Freeland Park beach with as many as 80 clams in one day this summer have officially ruined it for everyone.Last month, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the beach to clamming because counts that department personnel made last summer indicated that non-Native American people had dug more than their fair share of the little bi-valves. Mark O’Toole, a biologist with the department, said this week that the beach will remain closed until Jan. 1. At that time, if the manila and native clam populations living at the beach look healthy, the beach will be ready to open for all of 2000.“It’s solely due to people overlimiting,” O’Toole said of the closure.Fish and Wildlife biologists sampled catches made by clammers at the beach several times this summer. Regarded in the department as the best clamming beach in the North Sound region, it was no surprise to the researchers to find some clam diggers taking more than the 40-clam per day limit. But O’Toole said overlimiting was rampant, and the biologists found many people taking 20 and 40 clams more than they were supposed to. The poaching was the worst in the Puget Sound area this year, O’Toole said.Because the department’s clam count for the beach is based heavily on the number of clams biologists see coming out of the water, O’Toole said the overlimiting led his department to believe that the beach was clammed out by the end of September.“Fifty-one percent of the people we interviewed took more than the limit,” O’Toole said. “And 20 percent had more than double the limit.”Initial projections in the spring had shown that the beach should have had enough clams to last the entire year, if clammers stuck to the established limits. Now the only people allowed to clam on the Freeland beach are members of North Sound Indian tribes, such as the Tullalips and Swinomish. Native clammers are allowed to take up to 50 percent of the estimated total clam catch on all state beaches. The tribes keep track of their own catch, not Fish and Wildlife.O’Toole said he expects clamming to return to normal on the beach next year.“Hopefully we won’t have this problem next year,” he said.The beach was closed to clamming one other time this year after Island County Health Department officials found a high level of toxins in butter clams living in the tidelands. That closure was lifted early last summer.The Freeland Park beach is popular with off-island clammers and tourists, many of whom were included in the Fish and Wildlife survey. The beach is now posted with a single yellow sign proclaiming it closed to clamming. O’Toole said he was not aware of any enforcement actions taken against clammers who took more than their limit. Only game wardens may give out citations for over-limiting.No other clam beaches were closed in the Puget Sound area this year due to overharvesting."

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