All along the coast of British Columbia, researchers and First Nations are unearthing—or rather “un-muddying”—ancient gardens. Over 2,000 years ago the Indigenous peoples of B.C. created the first marine farms with simple materials to cultivate a staple of the coastal First Nations diet: the clam.

What researchers call “clam gardens” the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation,of northeastern Vancouver Island and mainland B.C. knew as loxiwey. Families managed the intertidal plots and passed them down through generations. After locating a beach with clams, women and children rolled basketball-sized rocks to the edge of the lowest tides to build the walls and cleared the plot from debris. Sediment and mud would accumulate to create the ideal habitat for clams to spawn and grow. Once they had established a clam garden, the tidal farmers would use digging sticks to turn over chunks of the seafloor and aerate the sand. With rakes, they selectively harvested mature clams into woven baskets and left the smaller ones.

Over the last five years, academic researchers from Royal Roads University, the University of Victoria, and Simon Fraser University have rediscovered these ancient farms along British Columbia’s coast, with several sites on Southern Gulf Islands. The Clam Garden Network has been restoring several historical clam farms. The resurgence in Indigenous clam gardening coincides with the hopes of B.C.’s shellfish to expand into global markets, and these competing visions of coastal aquaculture echo many of the debates about sustainable agriculture.

THINK OF A BEACH and all the nooks and crannies different species use as habitat. Chitons stick to rocks, their leathery, accordion-like shells blending into uneven formations. Black, purple, and green urchins glide back and forth, following the tides and spearing tiny sculpins on their spikes. Octopuses den below the surface of the inky waters. All these and so many other species of fish, bivalves, and marine creatures inhabit the coastal environments in B.C. The Clam Garden Network is trying to determine whether the clam gardens had a positive impact on this dynamic habitat. If so, the coastal First Nations not only farmed clams but also boosted the variety in their diet by supporting the biodiversity of the environment.

Salt Spring Island hosts a clam garden near Fulford Harbour, close to where vacationers and residents disembark from the ferry. Here, the Network works under the guidance of the WSÁNEĆ and Hul’q’umi’num Nations. Other sites can be found in Bella Bella on the Central Coast, Quadra Island in the Northern Gulf Islands, and Russell Island, an islet between Fulford Harbour and Swartz Bay.

Skye Augustine, a member of the Clam Garden Network, has been studying clams and the First Nations management techniques for over five years. Augustine completed her master’s thesis in clam garden restoration techniques at UVic before joining Parks Canada as the clam garden restoration project coordinator for the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve in 2009. With the guidance of traditional knowledge holders from local First Nations, Augustine works with a team of scientists, academics, community stakeholders, and school districts to actively manage and learn from the restoration of the clam gardens. The project will continue for another five years to see if restoring the ancient clam gardens has any effect on beach ecology.

“Clam gardens are biologically diverse and offer habitats for many other species,” she says. “One of the goals of this project is to quantify the other foods clam gardens can provide, for humans and for wildlife.”

At the Salt Spring site, Augustine’s restoration team first clears away debris: kelp, wood, garbage, and derelict fishing gear. Then, they reconstruct the rock wall. With GIS sensors and aerial photography, the team can map out the boundary of the original garden. The nature of clam gardening confines Augustine to working at low tides—early mornings, in the middle of the night, whenever the moon pulls back on the water’s edge. Only when the ocean retreats can she and her colleagues add rocks to the wall.

Clams and shellfish are integral to coastal First Nations culture and way of life. Origin stories, dances and art, ceremonies, and song all incorporate aspects of the clam and its calcium-constructed counterparts. Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist from UVic, and Douglas Duer, an anthropologist from Portland State University, interviewed Clan Chief Kwaxistalla Adam Dick and other members of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation to understand the traditional “mariculture” on the Northwest Coast. Their research paper in the April edition of Human Ecology emphasizes the significance of clam gardens not simply for food production but also as a site for knowledge sharing and storytelling. Kwakwaka’wakw tales remind listeners that caring for the clams led to better harvests.

Additional research is happening along the central and northern coast of B.C., where a number of Northwest Coast First Nations groups managed clam gardens. Each group had a distinct method for harvesting, preparing, and storing the clams, and different stories and interpretations of what the species meant to their people. The gardens managed by the Kwakwaka’wakw were constantly cleared and maintained as to allow the successive growth of clams and cockles in the tidal flats. Only recently recognized as significant archaeological features, clam gardens further debunk the myth that First Nations were solely hunter-gathers.

A guide for Manila, littleneck, butter clams, and cockles.

THE CLAMS WE FIND in our grocery stores or doused in marinara sauce at our favourite restaurant often come from the same region as the ancient clam gardens, but are produced in a far different process. Most commercial clam farms in B.C. are situated south of Campbell River in Baynes Sound, where the water is warm enough to support the Manila clam, a species introduced from Japan in the 1930s. The Manila clam is the most popular commercially produced clam because it takes only two years to mature and has a high export value. The global market paid $1.55 per pound for Manila clams in 2012, while littleneck or butter clams fetch around half that price. As of 2011, when the last major Statistics Canada survey on aquaculture and shellfish production was conducted, over 9,400 tonnes of shellfish were produced in B.C., at a value of $19 million. That’s several boatloads of clams.

Roberta Stevenson, executive director of the British Columbia Shellfish Growers Association (BCSGA) says that Manila clams are also more aesthetically appealing compared to their native counterparts, the littleneck clams.

“They’re not worth enough money to bother farming,” she says about littlenecks. “You cannot get a top dollar for them because when the Manila clam is steamed open the meat remains on one half of the shell whereas other clams when they’re steamed open the meat goes on both sides of the shell—and that’s less attractive to the consumer.”

The BCSGA oversees 130 different shellfish growers, mostly small independent businesses; seven are run by First Nations. Stevenson says most of the shellfish “landings”—that is, the harvest—are exported to our southern neighbours in California because it’s cheaper to transport to the U.S. than to other foreign markets.

“The rest of the world wants these animals, China in particular,” she says. “But we just can’t grow enough of them because people in B.C. are not embracing the opportunity to farm their coastland. And because of that, we have very small landings.”

Depending on the species, clams can take up to four years to mature for market. However, the impressive and increasingly in-demand geoduck takes seven to eight years to mature and can grow up to two metres in length. Clams are grown from seed in a hatchery—mostly in B.C., although some come from Washington state or even Hawaii—until they are large enough to be transferred to a nursery as “spat.” The spat are boosted in an upweller system, a watery nursery used in commercial shellfish farms, where they grow big enough to be transferred to the beach. There, they are planted in the sand in tubes, as opposed to oysters, which are strung on cords in square grids in floating farms. When the clams reach legal harvesting size, they are collected and processed for market.

Shellfish farming isn’t a popular industry in B.C. coastal communities for a variety of reasons. The large plots used for clam beaches are as manicured as golf greens with netting to prevent raccoons, mink, and birds from digging up the clams—all of which reduces biological diversity and affects the normal functioning of the ecosystem. By contrast, the rock walls of Indigenous clam gardens also supplied space for sea cucumbers, chitons, urchins, octopus, and sea snails, and other valued foods for the coastal First Nations. The walls also provided spawning habitat for fish, especially herring, which lay eggs near shore.

Commercial clam farmers claim that their aquaculture operations increase the ecological value of the tidal soil. “The process of farming them and digging them up and then reseeding them improves the substrate,” Stevenson says. “It’s exactly like if you have a track of land and you never farm it and you leave it fallow. It goes back to nature versus if you have a track of land that you garden and every year you rototill it, plant it and harvest it. It makes it so more species can live in it because it’s fluffed up like your garden.”

The idea that turning over a garden or crop is better for long-term soil health and biodiversity is an article of faith in modern agriculture. However, a 2014 study conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Food and Agriculture and Ministry of Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph found that farmers can reap more benefits from practising no tillage or varied crop rotation compared to monoculture cropping and conventional tilling. Three out of four sites were found to have healthier soils after implementing a non-conventional farming method of crop rotation and no tilling. Scientists have yet to research the impact of beach tilling and crop rotation of shellfish on the health of the environment. However, the Ontario study of land-based monocropping and tilling should raise questions about the assumption that similar practices are good for our ocean beds.

THE FIRST NATIONS VIEWED their clam gardens as more than just a food source. Skye Augustine says it’s important to bring people back into the intertidal sites that were significant for the exchange of knowledge between elders and youth. Trying to understand the traditional practices such as clam gardening can improve our management of ecosystems in the future.

“This offers the opportunity to reflect, to go back to the old ways and look to the past,” she says. “Resource managers will learn from the study, no matter how small or big, and we’ll learn that we don’t just need big fancy technologies.”

As we walk the fertile crescents between B.C.’s tidelines, the resurgence of clam gardens can provide both Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents an opportunity to reflect on larger issues at stake: the importance of First Nations land rights, the interconnectedness of our food systems, and the ecological integrity of our entire region—both land and sea.

This article first appeared in our Fall/Winter 2015/2016 issue (PDF, 41MB).

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