Details: Shellfish diggers confronted at Weather Watch Park

(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.

17 Replies to "Details: Shellfish diggers confronted at Weather Watch Park"

  • Mort July 31, 2009 (8:01 pm)

    Nice work Tracy and gang.

  • fluorescent carl July 31, 2009 (8:27 pm)

    Darwinism works if you don’t disturb its delicate structure.

  • JH July 31, 2009 (8:36 pm)

    For personal use? Yeah right…

  • Scott July 31, 2009 (8:41 pm)

    What is the personal limit? Been a long time since I’ve been clamming, but if I remember right it was 10 pounds or 40 individual clams? If this ice chest was clearly that heavy, they were over limit. Also a “shellfish” (clams/crabs/kelp/etc) license is required for this as well.

    Seems that you can also reach the Department of Fish & Game via the state patrol/911 asking to be transferred.

    This sounds actionable as I’ve seen DF&G at this same location before writing tickets.

  • Living in West Seattle since 1985 July 31, 2009 (9:22 pm)

    Aren’t there signs along the waterfront by the beach access points, in about a dozen languages, all saying NOT to eat the shellfish?

  • bikejuju July 31, 2009 (9:58 pm)

    Go Brenda! Go Tracy! Nicely handled.

  • nants July 31, 2009 (10:16 pm)

    Brenda, Thx for protecting our innocent sea creatures from the ignorants who seem to not be able to read the signs regarding the shellfish…

  • Mike July 31, 2009 (10:48 pm)

    I don’t believe that stretch of open beach has a sign warning of the deadly toxins in shellfish along the Duwamish waterway. It’s not as close as the main strech of Harbor Ave is to the most toxic waterway in the USA but it’s close enough to kill you if you eat the shellfish.

    If Metro KC is contacted, they can post more signs up regarding the dangers of shellfish in the area.

    I always think it’s odd people fish off the docks along the Duwamish.

  • (required) August 1, 2009 (12:01 am)

    Well done. Glad to hear of Brenda and as usual, the inimitable WSB. Thank you both so much for your work, courtesy, and information!

  • RIH August 1, 2009 (12:43 am)

    So much for the Friday night “Clam Bake” in Nickelsville…

  • Mark August 1, 2009 (7:40 am)

    While admittedly stupid (because of the toxins) the law here is more nuanced than this article and the “seal sitters” imply.

    The cited ordinance only applies to city owned tide lands. Most of the tide lands along beach drive are privately owned, usually by the upland land owners. Clams on those beaches are technically owned by the land owners and (except for the ability for registered native tribes to extract up to 50% of them through a lengthy notification/assessment process), those land owners or those they give permission to, can still harvest them (as unwise as that might be).

    The article suggests these folks were wandering up and down a “sizable” portion of beach drive. Hence, most of the clams were probably taken off of private tide lands. That means this was mostly just petty theft if they did not have the land owners permission and said owners wish to push charges (and good luck convincing SPD/City DA to followthrough on this one — how much is a toxic clam worth?). (And don’t bother going the trespassing route either. Its perfectly legal to walk/fish/etc below mean high tide on private beaches in WA state).

    As for the clams taken on city / other public tide lands, yes the other ills apply. The ordinance prohibits it and they lack a shellfish license. Unless there is evidence (pictures?) that they did collect on public land, pushing it further won’t wash. If there is evidence you might get WDFW to ban them for a few years from obtaining a license (technically its poaching), but sounds like these particular folks don’t really care about that.

    As for Brenda, your heart might be in the right place, but boisterously confront the wrong batch of folks with a lot of made up law and you’ll be facing a harassment charge.

  • Living in West Seattle since 1985 August 1, 2009 (10:03 am)

    Man . . . those clams are quite the issue. This story shows that EVERYONE needs to know where there food is coming from & make smart choices.

  • Living in West Seattle since 1985 August 1, 2009 (10:04 am)

    oops *their

  • B-squared August 1, 2009 (6:02 pm)

    Well done, and thank you for your persistance! I used to live on beach drive and would frequently see people off of mee kwa mooks park taking EVERYTHING living off the beach. They had five gallon buckets that they collected seaweed, tiny crabs, etc. I can’t say for certain what they planned to do with them, but regardless, it was way too much. i’m glad that in this instance, someone was there to intervene.

  • Cat Woman August 2, 2009 (10:23 am)

    Great work! I can tell you of that none of my immediate neighbors on Beach Drive have given anyone permission to take sealife from our private beach properties. We consider Beach Drive a safe haven for our sea creatures…everyone is welcome to look and learn but not bother them. If you do, we’ll report you!

  • Mike J August 3, 2009 (6:44 am)

    That was a great job guys! I hope you tell the local health department about this. Likely this was destined for sale at local market. Let the health inspectors know so they can look closely for documentation of source for the shelfish they inspect. It might also explain any food born illness if one arises from shelfish thought to be from a reliable source.

    Really good job.

  • Tonya August 4, 2009 (1:55 pm)

    I live on Beach Drive and see them often running from their cars down to the beach at Cormerant park near my house. I have called on them as well but nobody ever returns the call, very frustrating.

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