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Digging for opportunities

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Terry Wilkins digs for clams in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Basin. (Photo Credit: Arthur Bull)

“You gotta be awful stubborn to make a living,” Terry Wilkins says of clamming.

Wilkins, now 57 years old, has been digging clams in the tidal flats of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Basin since he was 11.  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 plan to manage the clamming ecosystem that empowers clammers to make sound decisions – the tide seems to be turning for this important small-scale fishery.

Clamming is a significant source of food and income in many coastal communities, contributing up to $9 million to Nova Scotia’s economy. However, as an ‘industry’, clamming is as small-scale as it gets. Wilkins’ gear consists of a wheelbarrow, a pair of good rubber boots and a bent spading fork known as a ‘hack.’ It’s a process that has changed very little over time; the Mi’kmaq showed hungry European settlers how to dig for clams in the 1600s. When carried out with hand tools in selected areas, clamming remains one of the region’s lowest impact fisheries.

Protecting the Annapolis Basin

Spending each workday bent over the tidal flats, one gets to know a thing or two about a healthy coastal ecosystem. Because clams are so sensitive to changes in water quality, clammers are often among the first to call for policy changes and infrastructure upgrades to protect and restore coastal habitat.

At one time, the Annapolis Basin accounted for over 60 percent of all Nova Scotian soft-shelled clam harvest. But a large causeway erected in the 1970s reduced tidal flow, allowing fine sediment to muck up key clamflats. Increasing wastewater contamination, management and enforcement problems, as well as a complex struggle with a corporate monopoly over the cleanup of polluted waters 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, Wilkins says, it felt like regulators were “throwing the clam digger out with the tide.”

But, as it turns out, the stubborn nature of the clammer is starting to pay off.

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A group on a tour led by Fundy Adventures. (Photo Credit: Fundy Adventures)

Over the past few summers, Wilkins has joined with a local experiential tourism outfit called Fundy Adventures. Run by the inspiring and imaginative Wanda VanTassel, tourists gather for a few hours out on the Fundy flats, picking dulse and winkles (edible sea snails) or digging for clams.

“We are bringing people from all over the world to show them what small-scale fisher people do along the Bay of Fundy shores,” says VanTassel. “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.”

With his boots anchored in the Fundy mud, Wilkins reminds 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.

When Wilkins gives the OK, it’s time to start digging. “A few are discouraged at first,” he says. “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 Wilkins returns with a cowboy hat and guitar to share songs and stories about his life on the flats.

Clamouring for a better future

Clammers like Wilkins hope that sharing their stories in innovative ways can help sustain their industry. Thanks also to an abundance of programs, such as Who Fishes Matters, Too Big To Ignore, SlowFish, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, (and Small Scales too!), the knowledge and experience of small-scale fisheries is being shared and spread. These groups are also advocating for policies and actions that protect and restore vital livelihoods.

VanTassel knows that opportunities abound. “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, Wilkins says he 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 that shines on the determined backs of the clammers is illuminating exciting new opportunities to sustain coastal livelihoods in our small province.

Sadie Beaton has worked on marine and coastal issues with the Ecology Action Centre for the past 10 years. In that time she’s done everything from designing conservation-themed underwear to co-founding Atlantic Canada’s first community supported fishery. She currently curates the Ecology Action Centre’s Small Scales blog, which is where this story was first published.

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