I've been digging, cleaning, cooking and eating Razor Clams for over half a century, but I am not a biologist, so for those interested in detailed scientific and taxonomic information I have provided source links at the end of this article.
Where are the valves on a skeleton?
Their shells are not a pretty shape like the Cowry's, or iridescent like an Abalone's; these are not shells to be prized and displayed on a shelf or held to one's ear to hear the rush of the ocean. The Razor clam's hinged oblong shells, also known as valves, are part of their exoskeleton. The shells are rather flat and flimsy-looking, and the exterior appears to have been applied with a layer of browning shellac. However: the clams inside are damn good eating, and unlike many smaller clams the Razor is cleaned before it is eaten.
Like many coastal residents, the Pacific Razor Clam is hostage to the vagaries of the ocean waves. Although it generally lives under the sandy surface of the intertidal zone, and farther out into the ocean to a water depth of about 30 feet, the sculpting action of the waves can uncover its home or bury the clam deeper under the surface.
The Razor clam feeds by filtering nutrients through a pair of tube-like siphons in its neck. The incurrent siphon brings in food and oxygen while the excurrent one, located on the hinged dorsal side, is used to expel the filtered water and waste. The length of neck on a bivalve is an indicator of the normal depth under the sand or mud in which the clam exists. When extended, the Pacific's siphon can be four to six inches long. Unlike other clam species such as the Geoduck's siphon, the Razor clam can withdraw most of its neck into the protection of its shell, but unlike Manila or Little Neck clams, the shell of a Razor clam cannot close tightly.
Although the Pacific Razor clam has a foot, or "digger," they also forcefully expel water through the siphon when they retract their siphon. This assists in downward locomotion, mainly as an escape mechanism.
Donuts, Keyholes, Dimples, and Necking; OR: never bring a rake to a gun fight
A low tide — preferably "minus" tide — is the best time to find and dig Razor clams, whether using a clam shovel or a metal or plastic tube, also known as a clam gun. Unlike some other types of clams which can be found just below the surface and can be raked up, the Pacific Razor clam hides well below the sand and will dig down to a depth of about four feet to make its getaway. So how does one find them? Well, it depends on where you're looking.
Many clammers dig at the edge of the surf by spotting clams that are "necking" which basically means they are feeding at the surface with a small portion of their siphon projecting from the sand. When the waves recede their necks cause a v-shaped ripple, which helps the inveterate clammer find their prey. Capturing that prey before the next incoming wave can be problematic. Of course there are also many small pieces of shell and rock which cause similar ripples.
Those digging above the surf line try to spot clam "holes" which are created when the clam expels water through its siphon as it digs down. Usually these holes are just minor dimples in the sand somewhat smaller than a dime, but in the dryer sand some, known as keyholes, will be deeper, with steep distinct sides. Although it isn't always true, you can often tell the size of a clam by the size of the hole, so what most clammers want to find are donuts: larger holes with a raised circle of sand like a mini-volcano caused when the clam has forcefully spewed water and sand to the surface.
When the clam holes are scarce you may often see clammers stomping around as though they are having a minor tantrum. What they are actually doing is creating vibrations in the sand to startle the clams into making a quick escape attempt and create holes to show where they are. Naturally a clammer then has to dig rather furiously to get these clams since they are already on the move. Another way to create vibrations and scare the clams is to pound the handle end of your clam shovel on the sand. However, since the handle end is gently rounded it is preferable to use this method in the surf rather than in the drier sand, as it can create dimples in the sand which appear very similar to actual clam holes. I know, for I have dug many a "shovel thunk" in error.
They're called Razor Clams for a reason
Just as a piece of paper can slice into your unsuspecting fingers, so too can the thin but sharp edges of a Pacific Razor clam — and it feels even better than a paper cut, because your hands are covered in salt water! So how do you avoid getting your hands sliced all to hell? Although it is not 100% foolproof, knowing that the clam's hinge side always faces the ocean waves allows your fingers to avoid the sharper ventral side when blindly burrowing through the sand.
You may now be asking "Why am I digging with my hands when I have a shovel?" Only the first few shovelfuls of sand are removed with the shovel, and then the clammer usually gets down on one or both knees to actually find the clam by feel. Sometimes, especially in the surf when the clams are closer to the surface, the clams may be removed in the first or second shovelful, but even when surf-digging it is often necessary to do a little digging by hand.
Another way to avoid getting cuts is to use a clam gun. This tube-shaped implement is pushed down into the sand around the clam hole (or neck) as deeply as the clammer deems necessary. The clammer then uses a finger or thumb to cover the vent hole to create a vacuum in the tube and pulls up on the gun to remove a cylinder of sand, dumping it on the ground to prod through and hopefully find a clam. There are some disadvantages to using clam guns: while they are easier on the hands, they are harder on the back since a cubic foot or so of wet sand can be pretty heavy. There is also a greater risk of crunching into the clam and damaging it, although unless it is totally mangled it is usually still salvageable for consumption.
The Pacific Razor Clam: bigger and stronger than its Atlantic cousin
Although I'm sure the East coast has plenty of wonderful and tasty clams in the Pharidae family, comparing the Pacific (Siliqua Patula) vs. Atlantic (Siliqua Costata) versions in the genus is like comparing apples to ... grapes. Although unscaled photos of these two clams may appear identical, with honey-brown oblong shells, the average Pacific Razor clam is about 2-1/2 by 5 inches, while the largest Atlantic is only 3/4 by 2 inches5.
Supposedly there is a much larger clam known as the "Rough Razor" (Siliqua Squama) to be found on the coast of Nova Scotia, but apparently no photos exist of this elusive clam — rather like the "Sasquatch" of bivalves. And though the East coast Jackknife clam is also sometimes called a Razor Clam, it is in the genus Ensis, so more of a first cousin twice removed.
Another reason the color red signals danger
Like most fisheries, in Oregon and Washington clams are not dug year-around. Those wishing to dig clams must have a license and be aware of and follow the rules and regulations or suffer the legal consequences.
Perhaps a greater concern exists in the more frequent occurrence of algae blooms known as "Red Tide" in the planet's oceans. Most phytoplankton are beneficial--in fact we probably couldn't live without them, since they are the base food of many ocean dwellers and produce most of the earth's oxygen. But there's always a few rotten apples, or in this case microalgae, out there. There are over 75 known species of phytoplankton which produce toxins that are sometimes harmful to marine life and more often harmful to the humans who consume them.
The Alexandrium plankton is responsible for Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) and demoic acid, a relatively new neurotoxin found in diatoms of the Pseudo-nitzschia genus can be deadly. Within 24 hours of ingesting food containing demoic acid, the victim may suffer some of the usual "I ate some bad clams" symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. By the next day symptoms may include short-term memory loss, seizures, loss of motor control, and sometimes kidney damage, heart problems, coma and death if a high dose of the toxin has been eaten. Freezing and/or cooking of affected shellfish does not remove the toxin and there is no known antidote.7,8
Although there is anecdotal evidence of these red tides dating back to the 16th century, scientific evidence shows their incidence has increased in the last century. Contributing factors for Red Tide include global warming and fertilizer run-off into the streams and oceans.9
I had to chuckle when I read the Wikipedia article on Pacific Razor Clams which said "Some razors expose their necks while the surf has receded, making them far easier to spot; some locals refer to these colloquially as Pollom Clams." The author apparently took the info from this blog which states:
Most of the clams required digging, but we stumbled upon one that had it’s (sic) foot literally sticking out of the sand. The other clam diggers there told us that those were called “Pollom Clams”.
As far as I can determine this blog seems to be the first source for the spread of this "colloquialism" on the internet, but I'm fairly sure what the locals really said was "pull 'em clams." Communication is such a marvelous thing!
- Washington Dept of Fish and Wildlife
- Oregon Dept of Fish and Wildlife
- Wikipedia information on bivalve shells
- Encyclopedia of Life ~ Pacific Razor Clam
- Encyclopedia of Life ~ Atlantic Razor Clam
- Information on Tides (PDF file)
- WDFW specifics on Demoic Acid
- ODF&W: specifics on Harmful Algae
- Sarasota, FL Herald Tribune article on Red Tide Timeline (PDF file)