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For coastal tribes, nurturing clam beds was “actually kind of protecting your vault, your bank.”
This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
It’s low tide in Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, California, and Hannah Hensel is squishing through thick mud, on the hunt for clams. The hinged mollusks are everywhere, burrowed into the sediment, filtering seawater to feed on plankton. But Hensel isn’t looking for living bivalves—she’s searching the mudflat for the shells of dead clams.
“I did lose a boot or two,” she recalls. “You can get sunk into it pretty deep.”
Hensel, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Davis, is studying shells, which are composed of acid-buffering calcium carbonate, as a tool that could one day help shelled species survive in the world’s rapidly acidifying oceans.
The inspiration for Hensel’s research comes from Indigenous sea gardening practices. On beaches from Alaska to Washington State, First Nations and tribal communities built rock-walled terraces in the intertidal zone to bolster populations of shellfish and other invertebrates. Although these sea gardens have not been documented farther south, clams were also vital sustenance in central California. Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo people harvested clams for food and shaped shells into bead money, says Tsim Schneider, an archaeologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. “So taking care of your clam beds was actually kind of protecting your vault, your bank,” says Schneider.
In the sea gardens of the Pacific Northwest, caretakers crushed the shells of harvested clams and mixed the fragments back into the beach. Recent research has shown multiple positive effects of this broken shell “hash,” from opening spaces in the sediment so young clams can more easily burrow and grow, to releasing chemical cues that encourage larval clams to settle nearby.
This millennia-old practice may hold the key to addressing a new crisis. As humans burn fossil fuels, oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making seawater more acidic. At lower pH levels, clams and other shellfish struggle to build shells. As their protective structures weaken and dissolve, the animals become vulnerable to damage and predation. But studies suggest that adding shell fragments to clam beds could release carbonate into the water, potentially neutralizing acidity caused by the greenhouse gas.
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