By Lauren Drakopulos, Washinton Sea Grant Science Communications Fellow
Abundant razor clam beds extend south from the mouth of the Quinault River, which runs through the heart of the Quinault Indian Nation. Quinault life centers on the surrounding natural resources, and razor clams have been a mainstay of Quinault cultural identity for millennia. With their ready access to the clam beds, the Quinault harvested and dried the clams to trade along the Columbia River and elsewhere around the region, where they were highly prized by tribes that didn’t enjoy the same access to them.
In the last few years, tribal members have observed highly localized fish kills caused by hypoxia (low oxygen levels). Hypoxic events are occurring with increasing frequency all along the Pacific Northwest coastline. They are associated with upwelling, the movement of cold dense water from the ocean floor toward the surface and coastline. Upwelling brings important nutrients which nourish algal plankton and boost biological productivity along the coast, but it’s a double-edged sword. Those algae die, sink and decompose, causing even more oxygen depletion in the already dense, salty, oxygen-poor lower depths.
Even more concerning, these fish kills coincided with low razor-clam densities on tribal beaches, leading the Quinault to wonder if there might be a relationship between the two. Ervin “Joe” Schumacker, a marine scientist in the Quinault Department of Fisheries, is working in partnership with tribal elders, managers and the local fishing community on a Washington Sea Grant-funded study to better understand the relationship between hypoxia and razor-clam health.
In addition to their cultural value, razor clams are a significant food and economic resource for the Quinault. They are an excellent protein source and provide work through both commercial digs and value-added production at the Quinault Pride Seafood Plant in Taholah. Furthermore, one of the beaches where the clams are dug is the only beach in Washington that is managed solely by a tribal entity. Other tribal beaches are co-managed with the state.
The range of species killed by the hypoxia reflects a local geography that compounds the impact. “Point Grenville Beach was inundated with dead fish of all kinds,” explains Schumacker. ”There were species galore – bottom-dwelling demersal fish, crab, pelagic [open-water] fish. Those , in this case anchovy, are so mobile they can generally escape these events, but they had gotten trapped in a natural cove and couldn’t escape the hypoxia.” Other marine fish have been observed swimming up the Quinault River trying to get oxygen.
Understanding the hypoxia and, perhaps, protecting the clams holds personal significance for Joe Schumacker, who grew up making family trips to the West Coast to dig razor clams and went on to graduate from the University of Washington’s School of Fishery and Aquatic Sciences. Schumacker has since spent 17 years working with the Quinault community. Beyond the goals of improving water quality and razor clam health, he sees this project as a chance to build connections between fishermen and other tribal members and the wider research community. “The project is really trying to do some relationship work,” he notes. “Fishing boats [which deployed data-collection instruments] were key to the collaborative process. Tribal fisherman really wanted to help.”
Getting the blessing of tribal leaders was also key to the project’s success. The history of the Quinault people and their deep knowledge of the area are key research components. Elders, leaders, and managers have shared their traditional ecological knowledge, which is critical to understanding how the ecosystem functioned in the past and how razor clam populations have been affected. The elders did not recall ever seeing anything like the fish kills and other changes. “Nothing sparks in my mind about it,” one elder told Schumacker.
Research is still underway, although a poor crabbing season (likely due to natural cycles but potentially exacerbated by hypoxia) kept many partner boats from fishing this year, providing fewer opportunities to collect data. Still, Schumacker is optimistic about the project, which is the first Sea Grant-funded research on Quinault territory dedicated to an issue of surpassing local importance.