(photo by Brenda Peterson)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Digging for shellfish at most – if not all – West Seattle beaches is unsafe and unlawful.
Not everyone knows that. It seemed to be news to three men confronted this morning while digging along Beach Drive, before they agreed to put the clams – a cooler full of them, as you see in the photo above — back.
This all began when Brenda Peterson, a West Seattle author and wildlife advocate, was out walking on the beach this morning, as she does most mornings as the founder of Seal Sitters, the local group that watches for baby seals this time of year, and, when one is found, assigns volunteers to guard it from human/animal disturbance till its mom comes back for it.
Peterson spotted three men going back and forth along a sizable stretch of Beach Drive shore, where the tide was somewhat out this morning, digging big holes, and filling a blue and white cooler.
She tried calling wildlife agents and got only voice mail. She also called WSB.
We answer the phone 24/7 (206-293-6302). Peterson told us what was happening and suggested that, if we could come down to meet her at Weather Watch Park, it might at least be an interesting photo, a way to remind people that shellfish digging in this area is illegal and dangerous.
How dangerous? Take a look at this grab from a state web page:
It’s a “marine biotoxin closure zone.” Biotoxins can include potentially deadly domoic acid.
As for the “illegal” part, here’s the city rule establishing marine reserves along much of the Beach Drive stretch (and certain other spots in the city).
When we arrived to meet Peterson, the three men were starting to pull their clearly heavily laden cooler up the beach toward the sidewalk alongside Weather Watch Park, the small park across from La Rustica. A copper-colored SUV pulled up to meet them.
After talking with us for a few minutes, she walked up to the group to take photos of them and their car, telling them it was illegal and dangerous to do what they had done and asking if they were aware of that.
At first, they showed what they claimed was a license. (Turned out to be a salmon-fishing license.) Then they noted the absence of a sign about the ban. (Such signs are prominently in display at other spots along the Alki/Beach Drive waterfront, but we didn’t see one at Weather Watch.) They insisted they were taking the clams for personal use, not to sell. Peterson observed that was a large amount of clams for personal use; they didn’t explain further. She reiterated the health risks: “Would you want your children, or your wife, or your mother to get sick?” and talked about an experience she’d had with food poisoning from shellfish.
Eventually the talk turned to, well, what should they do? “You could put it back,” she suggested. This all proceeded, by the way, in calm tones. The diggers seemed genuinely concerned; Peterson was polite but firm.
We, meantime, called the Fish and Wildlife Department to see if we could get beyond voice mail to a live person. Eventually we did. They verified that the clams might survive if returned to the beach/water – only geoducks have a low survival rate, they explained.
By that time, Peterson and the men were back down at the water line, with the cooler full of clams: As she watched, they put the clams back on the beach and in the water.
And then they left, with an empty cooler.
“Seal Sitters is really about education, not confrontation,” Peterson observed, as we sat on the bench at Weather Watch Park afterward to discuss what had just transpired. “This was clearly a well-organized operation, whether it was for a business or for personal purposes,” she observed, noting that the SUV and its driver had been waiting somewhere else, and pulled up just as the men, who she said all seemed to be communicating via smartphones, were about to lift the cooler off the beach, before Peterson walked up and started taking photos.
In the middle of a sentence, she stopped and picked up binoculars she’d brought. “I think that’s a pup,” she said, excitedly, looking just offshore. We saw it too – a seal, peeking out of the water – then, after we turned on our video camera and zoomed in, trying to get a flipper-hold on a floating log:
Seals do eat clams, by the way.
Peterson got the men’s license-plate number and was going to check on a next course of action. When we returned to WSB HQ, we published a short item about this, just in case the men moved on to another beach. What about other beaches outside our area, you ask? Here’s the state’s info, divided up by mapped regions.