Dredges scoop up millions of S.C. clams; some say limits needed

  • Posted: Tuesday, December 27, 2011 12:01 a.m., Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 7:44 p.m.
Former harvester Danny Wyndham said mechanization in the absence of regulation is responsible for the demise of the clam-harvesting industry. 'It is a moneymaker,' Wyndham said. 'But to be a moneymaker, you have to have some common sense.'

MCCLELLANVILLE -- Wild clams are the other shellfish, not thought of as Lowcountry delicacies like oysters or crabs. So it might be surprising to hear that millions come out of the water each year.

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The hydraulic escalator dredge, invented in the 1950s, revolutionized commercial clamming in the Southeast because it opened the harvest of hundreds of clams at a time from "subtidal" beds, the sandy bottoms underwater you couldn't reach by hand.

But the machine's scoop and pressurized water sprayed from its hose can turn up a sandy bottom in no time, and rake out clams by the hundreds. It's been banned for some uses; its clam harvest has been limited in North Carolina.

Quahogs -- hard-shell clams -- have made the lives of dredgers like Danny Wyndham.

"It is a moneymaker," Wyndham said. "But to be a moneymaker, you have to have some common sense."

Wyndham said unregulated dredge harvest in South Carolina has cleaned out the state's public clam beds.

State regulators don't agree. They said the harvest has been consistent year to year.

Blaming DNR

Wyndham is one of those grizzled old watermen, a rough cadre who earned a living from the coastal waters back in the days when you were out there pretty much on your own and competition could be cutthroat.

Like a lot of them, he hasn't been shy about getting in the faces of state wildlife officers to tell them how to do their jobs when they were telling him how they wanted him to do his.

And like a lot of the watermen who saw their ways corralled by S.C. Department of Natural Resources regulations, he blames what he sees as the clams' disappearance on the way regulators do -- or don't do -- their job.

The failure to set bag limits for clams did the crop in, he said. The complaint is reminiscent of longtime crabbers' complaints that the unregulated harvest of peelers, or soft-shell crabs, ruined their business.

Wyndham is the grandson of an Awendaw iceman. He still keeps the tongs he used as a kid to sling 25- and 50-pound cakes of ice.

He fell in love with shellfishing for a living when he was young, shifting from oysters to crabs to clams with the tides and seasons. He's been at it long enough to claim harvesting the first clams from newly salt water-intruded bottoms of the Wando River in the 1970s.

That's when the Rediversion Canal opened on Lake Moultrie, reducing the freshwater spill from the lake into the Cooper River environs, where the Wando empties.

He worked side by side with his wife, Shirley, who died a few years ago.

"She could pick clams, count them, grade them faster than anyone I've ever seen, and when we shipped to New York (buyers), we had no problems whatsoever," Wyndham said.

The business became a cachet in Mount Pleasant. People came by his place into the night for clams, crabs and oysters. He's retired now, but they still come by, he said.

Wyndham had a time of it. In his earliest clamming days, he found a "button" pearl inside a quahog he pulled from Bull's Bay in Cape Romain, something rare enough to be considered a precious gem. He still has it.

He was ticketed by wildlife officers once in 2001 and twice in 2006 when his crab pots washed ashore. Typically for him, Wyndham fought the tickets, claiming full-moon tides pushed the pots up and he was cited before he could get out to reset them.

Sgt. Angus MacBride, the citing officer in 2006, observed: "I don't make a distinction (how a crab pot washes ashore). A commercial fisherman probably knows more about (anticipating) lunar swings of the tide than your average person would."

A messy business

An escalator dredge is a 50-foot-long device that looks like the ladder on a hook-and-ladder firetruck. The "ladder" gets dropped to run the scoop along the bottom. Spray from the hose kicks loose the sands and knocks unburied clams onto the scoop, where a conveyor belt carries them up to the boat. The device is costlier but a lot more productive than drag dredging, or dragging a net along the bottom.

But it's a messy, noisy, controversial business. It roils the bottom waters to murk and was thought to drive off fish, although studies showed fish are drawn in to snare stirred-up prey. The diesel engines are so disruptively loud that the state banned dredging on weekends, to give nearby anglers some quiet time.

The dredging does enough of a number on a fishery that Virginia has banned crab dredging and North Carolina has a per-trip bag limit on clam dredging to keep it from stripping the resource.

In 2001, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, the federal regulator for the state's coastal waters, recommended against allowing the dredge to be used on bottoms where there is vegetation.

Clamming never has been a big commercial Lowcountry shellfishery like crabs or oysters, much less shrimp. But year to year it brings in several million clams and hundreds of thousands of dollars -- overall numbers that haven't dropped, despite Wyndham's claim.

State figures, though, don't break down what percentage of the harvest comes from the public dredging grounds, four designated areas in such spots as Bull's Bay and behind Isle of Palms.

These are the beds that Wyndham said are used up. In his day, he limited himself to 30 or so bags of clams per trip, so he knew he could come back around and find more, he said. Other dredgers hauled in 200 bags per trip, stripping the beds clean so fast they couldn't replenish, because the state didn't put in limits like North Carolina.

State studies found dredging leaves enough clams to replenish the stock.

Only a handful of commercial dredgers operate. Their trips periodically are monitored, and harvests have stayed about the same year to year, said Mel Bell, DNR fisheries management director. "It's not a huge fishery."

If the year's harvest of any one boat gets too big, DNR can cut off the operation, something similar to a catch limit.

Wyndham scoffed as he walked the dock at Leland Marina, pointing to a rusty dredging boat stranded in the pluff mud at low tide and another tied off down the pier. They're not out clamming because there are no clams to be found, he said. Then he walked down to Miss Marie, the dredge he just sold. Wyndham is retiring because he has "sugar diabetes," he said. He loses feeling in his right leg. Last winter he fell into the cold water twice in one day.

"If I'd have hit my head, that would have been the end of me," he said. "I ain't ever seen a one-legged oysterman and that's why I quit. You'd get stuck in that mud on one leg." That, and "I was so aggravated in the things that were going on." But he's not done. He plans to head to a DNR shellfish meeting early next year, to get in their faces again about overharvesting.

Wyndham can take you down the coast from Little River to Ashepoo River and point out all the clam beds, he tells you. If it weren't for the leg he'd still be out there. "Oh, I know I would."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bopete.

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