by Sadie Beaton
“You gotta be awful stubborn to make a living,” Terry Wilkins says of clamming.
57 years old now, Terry has been digging clams in the tidal flats of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Basin since he was eleven years old. He’s seen many tides of change in his industry, clamming his way through major environmental, economic and social shifts.
There have been hard times, sure. But with innovative opportunities growing in experiential tourism– and a new collaborative management plan that puts clammers in the driver’s seat –the tide seems to be turning for this important small-scale fishery.
Clamming is as small-scale as it gets. Terry’s gear consists of a wheelbarrow, a pair of good rubber boots and a bent spading fork known as a “hack.” This fishery has changed very little over time- the Mi ‘Kmaq showed hungry European settlers how to dig for clams when they arrived in the 1600s.
When carried out with hand tools in selected areas, clamming remains one of our lowest impact fisheries. It is also an important source of food and income in many coastal communities, contributing up to $9 million to Nova Scotia’s economy.
Spending your workday bent over the tidal flats, you get to know a thing or two about what makes for a healthy coastal ecosystem. Because clams are so sensitive to water quality changes, clammers are often among the first to advocate for policy changes and infrastructure upgrades to protect and restore coastal habitat.
At one time the Annapolis Basin soft-shell clam harvest accounted for over 60 percent of all Nova Scotian landings. But a large causeway erected in the 1970s has reduced tidal flow, allowing fine sediments to muck up key clamflats. Increasing beach closures due to wastewater contamination, management and enforcement problems, and a complex struggle with a depuration monopoly, have also thrown up considerable challenges.
In the past, when clammers spoke up to protect their livelihood, they didn’t feel heard. Like many other small-scale fishermen, they felt their stewardship perspective was being discounted. At times, as Terry describes, it felt like regulators were “throwing the clam digger out with the tide.”
But the persistent nature of the clammer is starting to pay off.
Over the past few summers, Terry has joined with a local experiential tourism outfit called Fundy Adventures. Run by the inspiring and imaginative Wanda VanTassel, tourists from all over gather to experience a few hours out on the fundy flats, picking dulse and winkles or digging for clams.
As Wanda describes, “We are bringing people from all over the world to show them what small-scale fisher people do along the Bay of Fundy shores. They get to try locally harvested sea vegetables along with a fresh pot of steamed clams while learning what the fisher people are doing to take extra measures to protect their industry for future generations.”
Boots anchored in the Fundy mud, Terry reminds the gathered adventurers, “We’re all standing on a bit of the ocean floor here.” The highest tides in the world wash over these fertile flats- up to 15 meters (50 feet) between high and low.
Then it is time to dig. “A few are discouraged at first. But then I’ll show them how to shove the hack in, loosen up the sand a bit, just push it down and pull over. Once they get their first clam out, they’re laughing! They love it.”
After everyone has a try, participants enjoy a fireside meal of fresh steamer clams on the beach. At some point Terry and his wheelbarrow return with a cowboy hat and guitar aboard. “They call me The Clammer,” Terry says, sharing songs and stories about his life on the flats.
‘The Clammer’ has recorded an album’s worth of songs, many expressing a deep connection to livelihood and tides. “Low Clam Digger’– linked below- is a stirring tribute to his clamming father, who taught him the value of “honest pay for hard work when day is done.” Meanwhile the stirring “Salt Water Earth” laments environmental changes he’s seen on the flats.
While a life on the clam flats has inspired a few sad country tunes, Terry’s got feisty ones too: “Fishermen unite, raise your voices to the fights, to the things that just ain’t right and say ‘I AM’- I am the fisherman, lowly digger of the clam, with my brothers do I stand, and say, ‘I AM’!”
And indeed, the CHA2 Clammers Association has worked hard to build unity, not just with fellow fishermen but a broad swath of people involved in the clamming industry, from local buyers to non-profit associations and various government regulators. They’ve shown impressive leadership and initiative in helping to create an exciting new Collaborative Clam Management Plan (CCMP). This intricate, ambitious plan aims to improve resilience and cooperation by improving the clammers’ ability to steward their fishery using co-management, effort controls, conservation areas, water-quality monitoring and scientific studies.
Clammers like Terry also hope that sharing their stories in innovative ways can help sustain their industry. From Who Fishes Matters, Too Big To Ignore, SlowFish, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, (and Small Scales too!), programs are helping to share the knowledge and experiences of small-scale fisheries, to advocate for policies and actions that protect and restore these vital livelihoods. Wanda sees opportunities. “There are lots of interesting things we can do if we work together to keep making a living as small-scale fisher people. I look at my grandchildren- we need to protect our food and our livelihoods and so there will be a place here for all of us.”
After meeting and talking with small-scale fishermen and seafood lovers from around the world, Terry sees a common thread. “Big corporations aren’t connected to the tides, see, but people are. We all work in the tides, and when we put our hands into the water, we all look up at the same moon.” These days, that same moon shining down on the determined backs of the clammers is illuminating exciting new opportunities to sustain coastal livelihoods in our small province.
Terry might call it “stubbornness”, but the vision, resourcefulness and persistence of those involved in small-scale fisheries- along with new initiatives like Fundy Adventures- is inspiring a change in the tides, and new ways of protecting the resilience of our fishing communities.
Listen: Low Clam Digger – Terry Wilkins