There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”
~ Mary Oliver

Oregon estuaries have a rich assortment of clams. Some in great abundance, some with great taste, and some are just watching for your shovel.  

Gaps in clams.
The Gaper clam is on the bottom. (Image courtesy of ODFW)

Why go out and harvest? Think clam chowder, fried clams, clam burgers, and more. Clam chowder is an American favorite and was first serve up in the New England area in the 1700s.  

Two species of Tresus gaper clams are found in Oregon: Pacific gaper clam – T. nuttallii and the Fat gaper clam – T.  capax.

Range

Pacific gaper clams range from Baja California north to Kodiak Island. They are the largest common bay clam in Oregon and California.

In Oregon, the shells may measure up to eight inches long, and weigh up to four pounds. In California they can grow up to 10 inches and weigh up to five pounds each.

Mind the Gap

The clams have evolved in such a way that the shell is just a wee bit small. There is just not enough room to totally retrack the large siphon, or neck, in. This creates a gap that cannot completely close.

Both species of Gaper clams and geoduck clams have this problem. The geoducks have larger siphons compared to the Tresus species.

The siphon is one of the reasons this clam thrives. The siphon filters the water for plankton and bits of food during high tide.

It also helps the Gapers avoid many predators as the clam is able to live deep in the substrate (like potentially four feet). In Oregon, the typical depth for finding Gapers is 12 to 16-inches. Trophy-sized catches are found a bit deeper nearer to 30 inches.

These clams are often incidentally taken during harvest along with butter and littleneck clams that live at the same substrate level.   

Shells

Shells are oval and typically are chalky-white or light yellow. The shell may also be darkly stained in a muddy areas. There are patches of brown, leather-like skin on the shell.

The upper shell is whitish with a thin brown membrane coating. It is relatively thin and can be broken during the digging process. Broken clams count towards daily limit. (See Regulations)

The thickest part of the shell is a cavity called a ‘chondrophore.’ In gaper clams, it is very pronounced. As the shell deteriorates, the chondrophore is the last piece to go. It is often polished by sand and surf and found by beach combers.

Annual lines on the chondrophore’s surface are used to age the clam. Gapers grow about one inch per year for the first four years. Growth rate begins to slow after that. They have a life span up to 17 years.

Reproduction

These animals are quite prolific and, depending on the conditions, may reproduce year-around. Young are carried by the water and swim freely until they settle onto the sea floor. They move downward into the sediments.

Where Found and Harvest Tools

Large bay clams are found on firm, sandy or muddy areas. In muddy areas, clammers often use a shovel or shrimp gun. They look for an oblong “show” hole about the size of a quarter. Some use a three-foot PVC pipe about 12-15 inches in diameter to prevent holes from caving in.

They Got Crabs

You may notice a pair of small crabs (Gaper pea crabs, Pinnixa faba) hanging out with the Gaper.  They are ‘room mates’ and the female may live within the mantle cavity. They do not affect the clam as food.

Lucky Us

Gaper clams are great eating and are fun to harvest. Before you go check the Oregon biotoxin hotline at 1-800-448-2474 and read more at https://myodfw.com/articles/shellfish-and-biotoxins and https://www.oregon.gov/ODA/programs/FoodSafety/Shellfish/Pages/ShellfishClosures.aspx. Always check harvest regulations and requirements.  

NOTE: In certain conditions, you can rebury a Gaper. Leaving it on the surface is a sure death. The Gaper needs the pressure of the surrounding sand to remain intact and maneuver.

Go forth, dig and be Okay!

REFERENCES:
–Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Crabbing and Clamming (https://myodfw.com/crabbing-clamming/species/clams and …/species/gapers.html)
–Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Gapers  (https://www.dfw.state.or.us/MRP/shellfish/bayclams/about_gapers.asp and bayclams/cleaning_gapers.asp)
–California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (https://cdfwmarine.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/creature-feature-gaper-clams/)
–Sole soups, History of Clam Chowder (https://solesoups.com/2018/02/12/history-clam-chowder)
–Wikipedia, Tresus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tresus)
–Mary Oliver quote (www.azquotes.com/quotes)

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has created an iNaturalist project to increase their knowledge of wildlife and biodiversity in the state, with special emphasis on the Oregon Conservation Strategy Species. The following is their description of the project and links to participate.

Have you ever taken a picture of wildlife in Oregon and wondered if anyone might want to know where you saw it? We do!

Help us improve our conservation efforts by sharing your wildlife observations! The Oregon Wildlife Conservation iNaturalist Project allows you to share your wildlife observation data directly with biologists. Even if you can’t identify what species you are looking at, odds are that someone in the iNaturalist community can. Participation in this project helps to enhance our understanding of wildlife in our state, and your data can help improve wildlife conservation efforts in Oregon.

It is not possible for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to survey all wildlife species, we need your help to monitor their presence and distributions across the state. The Oregon Wildlife Conservation iNaturalist Project was developed to collect wildlife observation data from community scientists like you on amphibians, birds, mammals and reptiles across Oregon. While we are interested in all wildlife observations, we are particularly interested in your observations of the 109 wildlife Strategy Species, or species of greatest conservation need, and Strategy Data Gap Species that are missing key information needed to accurately determine their conservation status.

The information gathered will augment ongoing research efforts, conservation actions, and management plans for sensitive wildlife species by ODFW and our partners. Your help is crucial for the successful conservation of Oregon’s wildlife species! iNaturalist is a free online tool managed by the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society that helps users to identify, report, and learn more about the plants and animals they observe.

We appreciate your contribution and ask that you help to spread the word.

Enjoy!

 The Oregon Coast has some excellent areas for tide pooling, which amazes and attracts visitors of all ages. Tide pooling is going out to rocky shores at low tides to touch and observe critters that live there.

During low tide, organisms that live in zones between the high and low tide are exposed from the water. They can be seen stuck to rocks or swimming and crawling in small tide pools of water. Some cannot withstand being exposed to air for very long. 

As tides go out, more delicate organisms will be visible. Therefore, it is important to track low tides and times before planning a tide pooling trip.

Resources

There are many resources for identifying wildlife in tide pools and along the beaches, such as ID guides found in bookstores or that can be printed online. In addition, some Oregon State Parks offer interpretive walks and other programs open to the public.

Guides

There are also opportunities to hire guides for tide pooling, such as Wavecrest Discoveries. By going tide pooling with a guide, you get much more out of the experience than just being able to identify different species. You also learn more about the area, hear additional stories about the organisms, and gain more information that you could never learn independently.

Giant Green Anemones and Sea Stars are reveled at lower tides. Photo by Susan Dimock

When tide pooling, it is important to wear proper footwear, as many of the rocks are went and covered with algae and can be very slippery. The marine layer can also lead to variable weather, so wearing multiple layers will provide the most comfort.

Rocks covered in kelp provide habitats for many species that are fun to look at. Photo by Justin Myers

For more information about tide pooling on the Oregon Coast, visit http://oregontidepools.org/.