Encyclopedia of Puget Sound

Clam hunger

Social scientists around the Salish Sea are predicting the effects of environmental change through the lens of culturally important foods.

2013 Swinomish Tribe clam bake. Photo: Copyright Northwest Treaty Tribes https://www.flickr.com/photos/nwifc/9517621153
2013 Swinomish Tribe clam bake. Photo: Copyright Northwest Treaty Tribes https://www.flickr.com/photos/nwifc/9517621153

The Pacific razor clam (Siliqua patula) is a meaty, six-inch bivalve common on sandy ocean beaches from California to Alaska. The clam is a cultural and economic touchstone for the Quinault Indian Nation, who co-manage a certified sustainable fishery for the mollusk with the government of Washington State.

Last year, when a toxic algal bloom closed the fishery on May 8 — a closure that lasted beyond the end of the year on many beaches — tribal citizens were left with an estimated $1.8 million less in their pockets.

But this wasn’t at all the biggest loss to the tribe, which has about 2,500 citizens, just over half of whom live on the Quinault Reservation in the southwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. “The loss of subsistence and cultural identity cannot be estimated,” says Joe Schumacker, of the Quinault Department of Fisheries.

Pacific razor clam. Photo: RazorClam23 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Pacific razor clam. Photo: RazorClam23 (Public domain) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARazorclm.jpg

Many Quinault people speak of “clam hunger,” a physical, emotional, and spiritual craving for a food that connects them to their native landscape, their ancestors, and their very existence as a people. Clam hunger can even drive people to eat this food when scientists and resource managers tell them that toxins render it unsafe, says Kate Crosman, who studies the effect of climate change on coastal communities. “Clam hunger is something we heard a lot about in our interviews” with the Quinault, she says.

Other Coast Salish peoples in both Washington and British Columbia report a similar relationship to wild local foods from the Salish Sea. “These foods contribute not only to the physical health we have but also our spiritual and cultural health,” says Larry Campbell, the historical preservation officer for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.

Campbell recalls attending a mussel bake on the beach with other tribal citizens, and observing the mother of one of his friends eating mussels rapidly and taking antihistamine pills as she ate — it turned out she was allergic to shellfish. Campbell asked her why should would eat the mussels if she knew they would make her sick. “Because my spirit demands it,” she told him.

“You can’t give thanks over a can of Spam.”

—Swinomish Elder

The paradox of clam hunger and phenomena like it — the idea that a person would eat something despite knowing that it might make them physically ill — suggests that the commonplace conception of well-being as involving mainly physical and perhaps mental health leaves something important out.

And food can help illuminate that something else — the way that health and well-being have cultural, spiritual, and intergenerational aspects as well — according to research in which social scientists are collaborating with indigenous groups throughout the Salish Sea region. In fact, these studies suggest, it will be impossible to understand and predict how climate change and other environmental challenges will affect people without this deep cultural understanding.

Culture and climate

The 2015 closure of the razor clam fishery was due to a bloom of algae that produce a neurotoxin called domoic acid. “This was a phenomenal bloom in scope, intensity, and toxicity,” Schumacker says.

While domoic-acid producing algae have been scarce in nearshore waters this year, last year’s bloom could be a harbinger of the future. Harmful algal blooms are expected to increase as climate change produces warmer marine waters during summer. Already, almost every marine water body of Washington State has been affected by one or more biotoxins that make shellfish unsafe to eat, says Adi Hanein of the Washington Department of Health.

The agency monitors fishery closures due to domoic acid and two other biotoxins, and in recent years has documented the toxins moving into new areas, as well as more frequent, earlier closures in some areas of the state.

Domoic acid and other biotoxins don’t actually kill the clams that the Quinault and others depend on. So this research shows why simply documenting or modeling the effects of climate change on natural resources isn’t enough to predict the impacts to human communities. “Harmful algal blooms may not affect the population of shellfish, but they will affect the community because of closures,” Crossman says.

Yet until now, efforts to predict the effects of climate change on coastal communities have rarely taken this type of culture-focused approach. Last year, for example, a paper published in Nature Climate Change predicted that ocean acidification would have relatively modest, evenly distributed effects on people in the Pacific Northwest.

But that sort of analysis doesn’t capture the real effects of environmental change on specific communities, says Melissa Poe, a social scientist with Washington Sea Grant and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “Some communities are more vulnerable than others, owing not just to exposure but also to non-substitutable social and cultural ties to the resources,” Poe says.

By “non-substitutable,” Poe and other social scientists working in this area mean that, for example, clam hunger cannot be sated by consuming chicken. Or, as one elder from the Swinomish tribe puts it, “You can’t give thanks over a can of Spam.”

For the last two years, Poe has been conducting interviews with citizens of the Squaxin Island tribe, whose ancestral territories lie in south Puget Sound. Poe and her collaborator Charlene Krise, a member of the Squaxin Island tribal council and director of the tribe’s museum and library, have documented an expansive concept of health among tribal citizens that encompasses much more than physical and mental well-being. For their study participants, health depends on being able to engage in cultural practices like shellfish harvesting, and knowing that the foods from the Salish Sea they depend on are secure for future generations.

Health indicators

This concept of health is common among people from other Coast Salish tribes, who, like Krise, often refer to foods like seaweed, shellfish, and salmon as ‘medicines.’ “We determine health differently than other people,” says Larry Campbell of the Swinomish tribe.

Campbell has been working with Jamie Donatuto, the tribe’s community and environmental health analyst, to develop a set of six indigenous health indicators: community connection, resilience, education, self-determination, cultural use, and natural resources security.  The indicators reflect aspects that are not often included in health assessments, yet are important to the tribe.

“Usually science is a top-down process. Scientists tell us what they’ve decided,” Campbell says. But the project suggests an alternative approach that he argues is widely applicable: “Any indicator has got to start from the community and work your way up rather than vice versa,” says Campbell.

In pilot workshops with both the Swinomish and the Tsleil-Waututh first nation in British Columbia, the indigenous health indicators proved useful in understanding how the impact of climate change and sea level rise on shellfish habitat, shorelines, and archaeological sites important to the two communities will affect community health.

Now, the Swinomish tribe is undertaking a $756,000 study, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to define how climate change will alter habitat for culturally important foods along the shorelines of the reservation and in turn affect the health of the tribe. An analysis has already revealed that Lone Tree Point, one of the most important fishing and shellfish gathering sites, will lose a significant portion of juvenile salmon habitat, shellfish beds, and beach seining sites over the next century.

The next step is to capture how rising sea levels and increased storm surges may put community health at risk by making the link between these findings and the indigenous health indicators, Donatuto says.

This type of interaction between the social and biophysical sciences is picking up steam around the Salish Sea. Some natural scientists are building on insights about the cultural importance of Salish Sea foods to ensure that their own studies are relevant.

For example, Jennifer Hahn, an adjunct professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, is undertaking the first major study of seaweed contaminants in the Salish Sea in over a quarter century. In a pilot project with the SeaDoc Society, she recently measured heavy metal levels in two species of seaweed collected from 20 industrial sites and 21 seaweed harvesting beaches. Rather than seeking out “pristine” sites for comparison with the industrial ones, Hahn identified beaches, actually used now or in the past for seafood harvesting, in collaboration with tribal citizens in both British Columbia and Washington. Some beaches were ones that the first nations or tribes would like to harvest at, but were concerned about the potential of contaiminants, Hahn reports.

Clam gardens

These investigations of wild Salish Sea foods can not only yield understanding of how environmental change may affect indigenous people in the region, but may also help indigenous and non-indigenous communities alike adapt and respond to environmental challenges. Some researchers say that clam gardens, which were unknown to Western science until the late 1980s but emerged at least 1,000 years ago along the present-day British Columbia coast (and may be a technology as old as 2,000 years), offer a glimpse of a more sustainable way to make productive use of the marine environment.

First Nations are working to restore a Russell Island clam garden rock wall in collaboration with Parks Canada. Photo: Copyright Marco Hatch https://twitter.com/marcohatch
First nations are working to restore a Russell Island clam garden rock wall in collaboration with Parks Canada. Photo: Copyright Marco Hatch https://twitter.com/marcohatch

A clam garden is formed when people build a rock wall in the lower intertidal zone. The barrier flattens the slope of the beach to provide more habitat at the ideal tidal height for native littleneck and butter clams. According to Marco Hatch, who will move from his position as director of the Salish Sea Research Center at Northwest Indian College to become a professor at Western Washington University this fall, clam gardens can contain up to 300 butter clams per square meter. He reports that when he plunged a hand into the sediment of one clam garden beach it came up full of the bivalves.  “The beach was top to bottom clams,” Hatch says.

One study found that clams grow twice as fast and can reach densities up to four times as high in clam gardens compared to unmodified beaches. “That is the missing link between harvest and aquaculture,” says Ralph Riccio, a shellfish biologist with the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe. “That is really cool.”

Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University who led the study comparing clam gardens to unmodified beaches, says that the structures suggest a way to achieve resilient ecosystems that can provide food to sustain a growing human population. “We have to learn how to do more with less, and I think clam gardens are a way to do that,” Salomon says.

Increasingly, researchers are realizing that clam gardens aren’t just about clams. The rock walls increase habitat diversity of shorelines: In some cases, they introduce rocky intertidal habitat to a sandy beach environment. Elsewhere, they create pocket beaches on top of bedrock where there was previously no soft sediment.

In turn, that diversified habitat supports more species of marine invertebrates (some of which, like sea urchins and sea cucumbers, were also sought-after foods for indigenous groups). A study in Fulford Harbor on Salt Spring Island found a greater diversity and four times the abundance of invertebrates on clam garden beaches compared to unmodified ones.

Stone fish traps were often constructed near clam garden beaches. Many also have berry patches or camas beds nearby. “This is part of a massive modification that extended from mountaintop to seafloor.” Hatch says. “These systems have been fundamentally shaped by people.”

Coast Salish fish trap. Photo: Richard Eriksson (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/sillygwailo/15279869323
Coast Salish fish trap. Photo: Richard Eriksson (CC BY 2.0) https://www.flickr.com/photos/sillygwailo/15279869323

That view flips the usual script that has human alterations of the landscape as a force destructive to biodiversity. And its significance becomes even greater considering that people arrived in the Salish Sea region around the end of the last Ice Age, just as a new ecosystem was taking shape in the wake of the glaciers’ retreat, says Sara Breslow, program manager for the Center for Creative Conservation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

This means that the ecosystem of the Salish Sea region has coevolved, since its very beginning, with human culture. “In order to restore the natural ecosystem in the Salish Sea we have to restore the cultural management practices within that ecosystem,” says Breslow.

About the Author: 
Sarah DeWeerdt is a Seattle-based freelance science writer specializing in biology, medicine, and the environment. Her work has appeared in publications including Nature, Conservation, and Nautilus.