Clams are a reliable, resilient, nutritious, and abundant food for Northwest Coast peoples. They are common coastwide in a range of beach environments and thus a broadly accessible food source for many coastal peoples. As broadcast spawners with an early age to maturity, relatively high recruitment rates, quick growth rates, and wide thermal tolerance relative to other coastal fisheries, clam populations tend to be resilient to harvest pressure and temperature variations, making them a sustainable source of food that could feed large numbers of people.
Digging for clams creates healthy bivalve habitat by turning over the beach sands and silts, exposing these sediments to oxygen. In an unworked beach, seaweed and dead clams can accumulate on the surface of the beach, suffocating live clams. When digging for clams - whether in a clam garden or an unwalled beach - people ensured that populations were healthy by removing predators, thinning clams, and preferentially harvesting larger ones to allow younger clams to grow. Some people added broken shells back to the beach to augment the sediments as needed. Cultural restrictions on harvesting size, timing, and location were also essential aspects of traditional clam management systems. Finally, boulders dislodged from the wall by winter storms, and cobbles and boulders unearthed while digging, were cleaned from the beach surface and replaced in the wall. Emily August, Tla’amin Elder, noted that a beach that was no longer tended in this way was “not tidy.”
"Clamming…was an important part of the year from early on as a young child."
-A.S. Hul’q’umi’num Elder
"Our grandmother teaching us all this, showing us, telling us where you go and how you do it, it made us all a strong family."
-J.J. Hul’q’umi’num Elder
"You know to us, it [clam harvesting] wasn’t work – it was fun. Once you’re old enough then you get to go on your own but then you never forget that you’re part of a family."
-J.J. Hul’q’umi’num Elder
Nicole Smith interviewing Heiltsuk knowledge holders Emma and Tony Reid (L) and Fred Reid (R) in 2013/2014 to learn about traditional ecological knowledge regarding the management of clam resources and ecosystems in the past and present. Conversations included topics such as the cultural importance of clam digging, the social connections and relationships maintained and strengthened through shellfish harvesting, harvesting locations, when and how to harvest, prepare, and store clams, how to keep beaches healthy and productive, the importance of clam digging to traditional and current economies and culture, and observations about changes in clam ecology.