Clam poaching tops Fish and Wildlife-related crimes in SLO County


CLAM CALL Pismo clams can only be legally harvested with a valid fishing license and once they reach 4.5 inches in size, and up to 10 per person in one day. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BONITA ERNST
  • CLAM CALL Pismo clams can only be legally harvested with a valid fishing license and once they reach 4.5 inches in size, and up to 10 per person in one day.

Though the Pismo clam broke its decades-long hiatus from Pismo Beach in 2016, the elusive mollusk has reason to leave again.

All summer long, the clams have been subjected to undersized—and consequently, illegal—harvesting. From June until early September, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife documented people poaching 1,174 undersized clams in San Luis Obispo County, yielding 23 citations. Some of these notices mentioned clams that were picked by the hundreds.

Fish and Wildlife Patrol Lt. Matthew Gil told New Times that clam poaching is a year-round issue in SLO County that peaks in the summer.

"Last year, we saw 19,000 clams [return], and issued 200 citations," he said. "This year, by the middle of September, we saw 14,553 clams and issued 208 citations."

Once found in Pismo Beach in abundance as softball-sized bivalves, the clams virtually disappeared in the 1990s. While experts attributed their exit to the resurgence of predators like sea otters and extreme human intervention, they haven't nailed down a definite reason.

But almost out of the blue in 2016, Pismo clams returned.

"We saw some more in 2017, but 2020 was the breakthrough year. There were a whole bunch of surfacing clams, a little over 25,000," Gil said.

But their return came with a change —most of the Pismo clams were severely small and nowhere close to the 4.5-inch threshold that makes them ripe for recreational picking.

"This is the first year that we're seeing legal-sized clams, so eventually word has picked up," Gil said.

He added that 99 percent of infractions occur at Pismo Beach and Oceano Dunes, with a sliver taking place in Morro Bay and Cayucos. There are roughly three ways to be noncompliant in clam picking —harvesting them when they are smaller than 4.5 inches, collecting more than 10 legal-sized clams in a single day by one person, and by plucking them without a fishing license.

"If you take out one and it's undersized, you have to immediately bury it. You can't throw them on the pile with the others," Gil cautioned.

The way many opt to poach: doing the "clam shuffle." Gil described it as people wading through the tide and feeling the sand floor for clams with their feet. Once they sense the mollusks, poachers quickly nab them from the water and throw them in their pockets. Later, they are usually transferred to ice boxes kept in their parked vehicles or nearby campgrounds. But sometimes, poachers get desperate.

"We did an undercover operation this summer and watched a group of people. They were eating them raw [while clam shuffling] and were going back to pick more," Gil said.

The SLO Superior Court ensures that clam poaching comes with a hefty price tag. Along with the base fine amount and court fees, perpetrators are usually charged $20 per clam that's undersized or over the 10-unit limit. This year, Gil said he came across two people with 777 ineligible clams between them.

"It's the No. 1 estimated Fish and Wildlife-related crime in San Luis Obispo County," he said.

Fish and Wildlife is amplifying messaging about safe clam harvesting. Before 2016, there was no signage about its rules and warnings about poaching. Now Gil and his team, along with docents from State Parks are consistently educating people, be it kids building sandcastles on the beach or adults seen with clam-filled iceboxes.

"If you're going to pick them, make sure you have a fishing license and a measuring device," Gil said.


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