Eastern PEI clam diggers are calling for stronger resource management, license buybacks, waterway cleanup and local research in response to long-dwindling populations and a 2023 season bust.

Angela Patton of Montague has picked clams in Kings County for over 30 years and 2023 was by far the worst season she’s witnessed.

“The clams that have always been there, just weren’t there,” she said.

Last year, Island clammers harvested less than half of what they picked the year before: 208,826 pounds compared to 538,496, according to preliminary Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) estimates.

That’s $422,900 worth of catch in 2023 compared to $1,191,834 in 2022, according to the early DFO data.

Fearful to rely on softshell clams as one of her main sources of income like her family has for generations, Ms Patton will take on an additional line of work this spring – buying lobster.

While adapting, Ms Patton doesn’t want government or the community to ignore waning clam populations.

Fishers’ theories about what’s causing the perceived decrease and the sudden 2023 drop are multiple.

Some question if sand ripped from dunes during Hurricane Fiona buried beds so deep the soft shell mollusks were smothered.

Others question if disease or abnormal cell growth called neoplasia, which can kill clams, are at play.

Invasive green crabs which have been present on the Island since 1997 eat soft shell clams; some fishers wonder if this is playing into the issue.

In West Prince, where harvesting has become much less popular than in Kings and Queens Counties, Malcolm Pitre suspects overgrowth of sea lettuce near the most prolific Mill River beds may be smothering clams.

Overfishing is a resounding theory among at least five Kings County fishers who spoke with The Graphic.

Gladys Laybolt of Montague has harvested clams along Montague and Brudenell Rivers and areas in and around Murray River since her grandparents would take her out picking as a teen.

In days past, she enjoyed relative solitude as she picked her catch.

Now Ms Laybolt is rarely alone when she works. She’s never surprised to see as many as six clammers in any given area, she said. Once she finds an unoccupied bed, disturbed sand and undersized clams tossed about, all are frequent signs others likely picked the bed during the previous low tide.

“If this keeps going, they’re going to be gone,” she said.

In 2000 DFO sold the Island’s first 1,598 commercial clamming licenses, according to historic statistics listed on the department’s website.

While DFO could not confirm by press time, multiple local fishers told The Graphic, available licenses were sold to a roughly equal number of residents in each of the province’s three counties.

A decline in clam populations in Prince County over time pushed most clammers there to either pick farther east or to sell their licenses to fishers in Queens and Kings.

“I feel there should have been measures in there that they were to stay in the counties,” Ms Patton said. “Then when the clams declined up west, they should have had a buyback.”

Ms Patton and Ms Laybolt agree a significant buyback would be helpful to both clam populations and clammers right now.

Ms Laybolt said contaminated waters have reduced the areas in Kings County where clam pickers can fish, pushing everyone closer together scouring fewer beds.

In 2023, a DFO restrictions map shows harvesting clams was prohibited in some portion of most hotspots in Kings County including parts of Seal River, Murray Harbour, Murray River, Montague River, Brudenell River, Cardigan River, Boughton River, Fortune River, Souris River, Basin Head Harbour and North Lake Harbour.

Working to maintain clean waterways or supporting processes to clean contaminated clams could be solutions, Ms Laybolt said.

Mr Pitre concurs. Efforts to ensure the Island’s rivers are healthy could possibly lead to renewed clam populations in Mill River.

Restricting picking while clams are spawning is another measure all three fishers suggested to improve stock. However, they know this restriction could be challenging to impose and enforce because clams spawn at different times in different areas.

Ms Patton said ensuring tourists and non-commercial clammers are abiding by personal catch limits and other DFO restrictions could also improve the situation.

All three said strong local research would be beneficial; knowing what has been causing the long-standing decline as well as this most recent sudden drop would help identify the most effective solutions.

Neither DFO resource management or DFO soft shell clam research representatives were available for comment.

By Rachel Collier, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 27, 2024 at 07:41

This item reprinted with permission from   The Eastern Graphic   Montague, Prince Edward Island
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