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California’s ban on hydraulic pumps for clamming now in effect

The popular tools that allowed for massive clam harvests are now prohibited, but not before a last-ditch rush over the weekend.|

An emergency rule banning the use of two-man hydraulic pumps in recreational clamming along the California coast is now in effect, making the newly adopted tool off-limits to stem potential harm to the state’s increasingly popular sport fishery.

The new regulation was finalized Monday by the state Office of Administrative Law and is in effect for 180 days, though it can be extended twice for 90 days each, for a total of one year.

The pumps, deployed by a greater number of clammers in recent years, have been at the forefront of a rush on California clam stocks especially over the past year amid the pandemic, as people flocked to outdoor activities.

Fans of the devices were out over the weekend, seizing the last opportunity to scoop up an easy limit before the rule took effect.

“One of the (Fish and Wildlife) wardens I spoke to Sunday made the comment even that it was kind of like the last gasp,” said Willy Vogler, co-owner of Lawson’s Landing resort on Tomales Bay.

On Tuesday, one of his staff had to refuse launching assistance to a group with pumps in their boat, until the people reluctantly gave them up and shoved off toward the offshore gravel bar to start digging.

“I guess they’re learning to use shovels today,” Vogler said.

The makeshift devices use pressurized water to liquefy several feet of sand and mud under which tasty gaper and Washington clams lie buried in places like Tomales and Bodega bays. Then shellfish prospectors can simply reach down and pluck them out.

Tidal flats have grown increasingly crowded with clammers using the devices, particularly during the COVID pandemic, state Fish and Wildlife experts say.

The ease with which the pumps allow clam hunters to seize their prize means many more of the bivalves have been extracted, putting heavy new strain on clam stocks. In addition, there has been mounting evidence of their use in illegal over-harvest and black market commercial sales.

The recreational clam fishery has been stable over the years — the harvest limited by the difficult work of digging them free and by the few days with sufficiently low tides to hunt for them, experts said. But the introduction of the hydraulic pumps about five years ago changed that, allowing shellfish to be caught on more days, over a wider area, and raising concerns about depletion of the resource.

Before, said Ian Kelmarin, senior environmental scientist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, “it was difficult for somebody that wasn’t really good at it to go and harvest a limit of clams in the relatively short period of time they have when tides are very low.

“Now, with this new tool, it’s pretty easy to get a limit. You can go clamming more days of the month. And so it really represents a shift in the fishery and potentially more pressure on the species, and we’re not sure if that’s sustainable,” Kelmartin said.

The state Fish and Game Commission approved the temporary ban on pumps last month so researchers could ascertain whether they put future clam stocks at risk.

Clamming using traditional tools, including shrimp or “slurp” guns, which utilize suction, is still allowed.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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