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Once vanished, the Pismo clam is back — and Pismo Beach is thrilled

Once thought to be extinct in the area, the Pismo clam is back in numbers that may be in the millions.

PISMO BEACH, Calif. (CN) — In a 1957 Merrie Melodies cartoon, a feverishly tunneling Bugs Bunny bursts through the soil, raises his arms, and gleefully announces, “Well, here we are — Pismo Beach and all the clams we can eat!”

While that episode has long provided a source of pride for Pismo Beach locals, the clam that inspired the city’s name actually vanished in the 1980s, its harvesting marking yet another cautionary tale of human overconsumption. But now the bivalve mollusk has mysteriously returned, and city officials are — wait for it — happy as a clam.

“We started seeing an explosion in population,” said Jorge Garcia, assistant city manager. “That was something the community hadn’t seen in 30 years.”

Once a main source of food for the native Chumash along the California coast, the clam is a vital part of Pismo Beach’s identity. While the clam can be found along beaches throughout the California coast, historically it was especially abundant in Pismo Beach — dubbed the Clam Capital of the World in the 1940s.

If it can avoid sharks, otters, crabs, humans and other predators, the Pismo clam can live as long as 50 years and grow to seven inches.

“The Pismo clam is pretty distinct,” said Derek Stein, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “It has such a shiny, pretty shell. They’re super thick, almost like a rock.”

As San Luis Obispo County historical photos show, clamming was a popular activity at the turn of the 20th century. While commercial clamming ceased in the 40s, recreational clamming continued for decades, thinning the population.

“The clams dispersed in the late 80s,” Stein said.

Even as the Splash Café — one of Pismo’s most popular eateries — had to rely on imported clams for its chowder, the Pismo clam remained a crucial part of the city’s brand. The parade at the annual Pismo Beach Clam Festival features locals in clam costumes, gift shops sell clam-themed items, and clam art adorns the city, including large concrete statues that are painted by local artists.

“I think it’s part of what makes Pismo unique,” Garcia said.

Knowing how important the clams were to the beach town’s hearty tourism industry, in 2016 the city sponsored research conducted by a biology professor and his students at nearby California Polytechnic University, hoping they might find a way to resurrect the clams by spawning them with science. But then, as the research was ongoing, something unexpected happened: The clams just returned.

Perhaps millions of them.

It started three or four years ago. Then, in the fall of 2021, people started seeing them on the beach. And this summer, the clams were so abundant, surfers shuffling in the water could feel them under their feet like cobblestones.

“There are different theories on what happened,” Garcia said.

Otters love to dine on clams, but an increase in shark population has affected the otter population. Big waves disrupt clam populations, but a lack of El Niño winters have limited storm events. And, of course, climate change is always suspect.

But sometimes the ocean is just a mystery.

“We’re not sure why there were no clams, and then suddenly there’s this major recruitment event,” said Sean Bignami, a professor and researcher at Concordia University Irvine.

Sean Bignami, a biology professor at Concordia University Irvine, has been researching Pismo clams in Southern California. (Courtesy Sean Bignami via Courthouse News)

While Ben Ruttenberg and his Cal Poly students have been studying Pismo clams on the Central Coast, Bignami and his students have Southern California covered.

The clams have made a comeback in parts of Southern California as well, particularly around San Diego.

“This is good news for the clams,” Bignami said.

Researchers are cautiously optimistic the populations will thrive.

“Once these clams get to legal size, people are going to be out there digging for them,” Bignami said.

Actually, they already are.

“We have arrested people with over a thousand harvested clams at a time, and that is a travesty,” Garcia said.

There’s a 10 clam-per-day limit, and you need a license even if you only plan to cook up a few clams. The law — clearly marked in Pismo Beach — has long held that clams have to be at least 4 ½ inches in order to harvest.

“The clams are about an inch in their first year, and they get to about three inches in the second year,” Bignami said.

The clams reach legally harvestable age after about 10 years, Bignami said.

Interns helped Sean Bignami at Concordia University Irvine by measuring clams in the middle of the night. The interns included, left to right, Olivia Ocampo, Kiana Hernandez, and Kailey Moore. (Courtesy Sean Bignami via Courthouse News)

Technically, you’re not even supposed to unearth a Pismo clam before it reaches maturity. And if you do, you’re encouraged to rebury it.

Fish and Wildlife is enforcing the law with fines. But only about 5% of poachers get busted. Meanwhile, the city is working its social media to raise awareness of illegal harvesting and how to rebury clams (two inches in the sand, vertical, hinge facing the ocean).

The city doesn’t want to lose the clams again.

While Bugs Bunny found a pearl inside one of his Pismo clams, the city has reaped its own rewards.

This year’s Pismo Clam Festival (Oct. 15-16), which normally features stories about the history of clamming, will be afforded all new chapters — and an opportunity to see clams once visible only in old photos. 

“It’s been a great educational opportunity for us as a community,” Garcia said.

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