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.


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 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.


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 and 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!

–Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Crabbing and Clamming ( and …/species/gapers.html)
–Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife, Gapers  ( and bayclams/cleaning_gapers.asp)
–California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife (
–Sole soups, History of Clam Chowder (
–Wikipedia, Tresus (
–Mary Oliver quote (

“I’ll take a bucket of steamed clams with garlic butter and plenty of napkins…”

How can one live in the Pacific Northwest and not know the taste of fresh steamed clams dripping of parsley and garlic butter?

Butter clams can be found throughout Oregon’s nearshore areas and larger estuaries. They are also found at many fine dining locations.

Where are they?

Butter clams are most often found living 6-12 inches down in the substrate of large estuarine systems, such as Coos, Tillamook, and Yaquina and in bays like Yaquina and Netarts where there is higher salinity. The mud and sandy substrates in these areas are some of the easier places to dig.

They are excellent burrowers and abundant in shell, sandstone, and even rocky areas. Like other types of clams, Butter clams create a distinctive rectangular ‘show’ or mark in the sand that exposes their general location. The Butter clam mark looks like an indent created by a flathead screwdriver.

The clam is usually not directly below the mark but relatively close vertically and will burrow away from you (in other words, sneak up on them and dig fast if you want to get them!). Butter clams will dig 50 feet below the low-tide line.

What did you find?

When digging, more than one type of clam may be found. Depending on the type of clam, you must keep anything that you dig up regardless of size or condition. Meaning? You might dig up more than just a Butter Clam. It may be possible to return unbroken clams to the immediate dig site if unbroken (see ODFW regulations).

Butter clams can reach up to 4-inches wide.

Details to know

Be sure to check the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) regulations for licensing, limits and catch requirements, catch activity reports, techniques, tools, and seminars (  A license for Oregon resident in 2020 is a bargain at only $10.00 per year! Butter clams are called a variety of names including Washingtons, Martha Washingtons, Beefsteak, and Quahog.

The ODFW website (above) includes information on seasonal opportunities, identifying the various species, safety, and provides local maps for where to look. Butter clam harvest is possible on the North Spit, Strawberry Island, Clam Island, Pigeon Point, Empire, Barview, and the Charleston Triangle and Flats. The site also lists locations accessible only by boat.

One more note—be sure to back fill any holes you create and have fun! 

Invasion of the Purple sea urchin

Purple sea urchin (Image courtesy of Laura Francis, NOAA)

In 2013, millions of starfish were wiped out by a mysterious disease. Populations of the sunflower sea star were also devastated.

Why is this important? The sunflower sea star is the only real predator for the Purple sea urchin other than humans.

It is almost like one of those ‘z’ science fiction movies.
There’s a monster with no head, wiping out precious resources,
that seemingly lives forever, and eats its own kind.
It could have been a story about the Purple sea urchin.

Where found

The Purple sea urchin lives on the Pacific coastline and is found from Alaska to Cedros Island, Mexico. They inhabit rocky low intertidal and nearshore subtidal communities.

In an intertidal zone, the urchin will camouflage or decorate itself with algae, rocks, and shells. Scientists suggest that this behavior might help protect the urchin from ultraviolet rays, from drying out, or perhaps being eaten.

They like areas of strong wave action and churning aerated waters which may also provide some camouflage and protection. Surprisingly, they are found in depths of up to 525 feet.

A disguise or just dressing up?

In the intertidal zone, a purple sea urchin will decorate itself with shells, rocks and pieces of algae. Scientists think this behavior protects the urchin from drying out, getting eaten by gulls or being damaged by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. 

They live solitary lives, often in crevices, just waiting for
a bit of kelp to drift by.

Subtidal urchins live together in hordes that can take down a giant kelp forest (as recently reported in California), especially when predator populations get out of sync. Eventually, a kelp forest becomes totally barren.


Purple sea urchins are a favorite food of Sea otters. When the number of Sea otters declined, there was a remarkable jump in urchin population in California.

               How to tell if a Sea Otter has been preying on the Purple sea urchin? Its mouth and teeth are totally purple, like a lipstick gone bad.  

Sea stars also prey on Purple sea urchins. As the sea star creeps near the urchin, the urchin moves its spines and lets the sea star get really close.

The Purple sea urchin patiently waits as the star closes in. Then launches a surprise attack with pincers chomping on the sea star’s tube feet. Most sea stars back off about this time.

The Sunflower sea star does not. When one of these stars get close, the urchin seems to panic, waving its spines and pincers, and attempting a retreat.

Physical aspects

Urchins don’t move very fast. It’s feet are tiny.
If it is not fast enough, the Sunflower sea star will
swallow the urchin whole, spines and all.

Small tubular suction devices extending from the spines help the urchin move. The tube feet are muscles that protrude from the spines.

The feet can attach to rocks or coral and move the urchin across the sea floor. The tubular feet help the urchin breathe and are used more often than gills for gas exchange.  

The mouth (located on the underside) has five toothlike plates. The teeth and spines are used to dig holes or depressions for the urchin to hid in. They can even drill through steel pilings by flaking away rust.


The spines help move food around to the mouth and support the feet. The spines will pierce human skin and cause minor problems.

If this happens to you, douse with vinegar. Vinegar will quickly dissolve the spine. Do not pull it out…it never entirely comes out…

The round body holds the spines and can measure up to four inches in diameter. Generally, adults are bright purple.

Juveniles may be pale green with some purple tinges. Eggs, or roe, are orange and are considered a delicacy.

Look ma – No Head?

The Purple sea urchin does not have a head structure.
But, it seems to have a head for business.

Sea urchins are big business and a high-valued fishery in California. In 2000, 20 million pounds were harvested and sold to Japanese markets. Sea urchin har­vest­ing has be­come one of the high­est val­ued fish­eries in Cal­i­for­nia, bring­ing $80 mil­lion in ex­port value per year.

The idea of ‘urchin ranching’ is popping up projects in Japan, Canada and California. Divers could transfer wild and starving urchins to on-land tanks where they could be fattened up for sale. The numbers available in the wild are astronomical.

The possibilities are endless almost like the life span of these critters. Most of the urchins have long lives, like 70 or more years. The potential for creating a sustainable aquaculture fishery along the Pacific coast is immense.

This story turns totally weird when comparing human and urchin DNA. Using the strictest measure, the purple sea urchin and humans share 7,700 genes.

That explains the purple spikey hair perfectly don’t you think?  A story for a different day.

More urchin anyone?

–Oregon State University (
–US News (
–Fun Facts, Monterey Bay Aquarium (
–How Stuff Works, Sea Urchins are the edible Purple Pincushions of the Ocean (
–Wikipedia, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus  (
–Animal Diversity (