MAY 2024

The Comeback of the Pismo Clam

Beach clamming is back in!

Pismo Beach wasn't always just a haven for surfers and sunbathers. Nicknamed the Clam Capital of the World in the 1940s, the area was once teeming with Pismo clams, a large, edible bivalve native to the California coast.

Clams
Pismo Clams (Tivela stultorum)

However, by the late 1970s and 1980s, after clams were mined with tractors and other large-scale digging, overharvesting had driven the Pismo clam population to near extinction. For decades, the iconic clams were a rare sight.

Then, around 2018, something unexpected happened. Pismo clams began reappearing on the Central Coast in surprising numbers. Researchers at California Polytechnic University (Cal Poly) scrambled to understand this mysterious comeback.

Clams
Although it has a population of only 8,000, about 2 million people visit Pismo Beach each year.

UCSB's Professor Ben Ruttenberg, the Director of Center for Coastal Marine Sciences has been studying Pismo clams for years. He attributes the population boom to a combination of factors. One possibility is a recent surge in the right kind of algae, which might improve feeding conditions for young clams. Another theory points to a successful larval recruitment year, where ideal ocean currents and food availability allowed more baby clams to survive and reach maturity.

The exact cause remains a bit of a scientific puzzle, but the results are undeniable. Pismo clams are back in abundance on the Central Coast. While the population's exact size is unknown, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reports confiscating hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of illegally harvested clams in recent years.

Marine Watchdogs Science Director Judah Sanders tested the waters and had a successful dig, harvesting fresh catch for Pismo-style New England clam chowder. (Here's the recipe).

Clam choswer
Garibaldi are a species of bright orange fish in the damselfish family.

Typically the best way to find clams at Pismo Beach is to get into the surf.

This resurgence is welcome news for the environment and the local economy. Pismo clams play a vital role in the coastal ecosystem, filtering water and providing food for other marine life. Their return also brings back the possibility of recreational clamming, a cherished tradition for many Californians.

Judah with a big clam
Judah measures one of the clams he dug up at Pismo.

However, with the population still recovering, it's crucial to manage clamming responsibly. Clammers must adhere to size limits and harvest restrictions to ensure the Pismo clam's long-term survival. You can get a California Sport Fishing license from the Department of Fish and Wildlife (wildlife.ca.gov/Licensing/Fishing).

The Pismo clam's comeback story is a testament to the resilience of nature and the importance of conservation efforts. As researchers continue to unravel the reasons behind this resurgence, one thing is clear: Pismo Beach is once again living up to its historic clam-centric title.