Increase in illegal clam digging in B.C. could raise risk of deadly poisonings, fisheries officials warn

British Columbia·New

Officials worry many people are unaware or underestimating the seriousness of illegally harvesting shellfish, which can ingest toxins that can be potentially fatal to humans.

Two women harvest clams at Boundary Bay in Tsawassen on May 13. Harvesting bivalve shellfish is illegal across B.C.'s Lower Mainland because of concerns around pollution and toxins.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

Flora Qu admits it is hard on her back, but digging for clams seemed like a good way to get out of the house given the pandemic restrictions.

"First time [I've] come here. Just want to exercise and have fun," she said, as she and a friend spent a couple of hours digging at Centennial Beach in Delta, B.C., on the shores of Boundary Bay.

Qu said she was unaware that harvesting shellfish like clams and mussels is illegal in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, but believed her friend had purchased a licence online.

There are currently full closures for bivalve shellfish harvesting across the bays and inlets of Metro Vancouver and up the Fraser River due to pollution and naturally occurring toxins. Bivalve shellfish are filter feeders, which means any contaminants in the water can build up inside them, experts say.

That could lead to potentially fatal poisoning if they are eaten — and that's worrying when people aren't paying heed to the warning signs posted at beaches across the region, fisheries officials say.

Bivalve shellfish like clams, mussels, oysters and scallops are filter feeders, which can accumulate contaminates from the water in their digestive system and tissues.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

But Qu says she is not worried about getting sick.

"Make the soup. Cook a super long time and it's clean," she said.

Officers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) say they're running into people like Qu at an alarming rate since the pandemic started.

"It's about three times the number of encounters," said Art Demsky, a DFO detachment commander. "The worst fear is that someone gets sick and possibly dies."

If consumed, naturally occurring toxins produced by phytoplankton in the water can lead to diarrhetic, amnesic and paralytic forms of shellfish poisoning. Paralytic shellfish poisoning is potentially fatal.

Demsky said stopping illegal harvesting is a priority, but their efforts are limited by the number of officers they have and vast area they cover.

Art Demsky, a detachment commander with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, with a recent seizure of more than 800 illegally harvested shellfish in Port Moody, B.C. He says education is a priority for fisheries officers when encountering those illegally harvesting shellfish, but fines are another option.(Art Demsky/Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada )

'They just ignore us'

Richard Wong regularly comes to Centennial Beach to go crabbing, which is legal when in season and with a licence. There are limits and size requirements on what is caught.

He has seen a large uptick in people digging for clams.

"I try to tell them… you shouldn't be picking up those things," Wong said. "But then when we walk away and turn around, they start picking again."

Crabs can be harvested with a licence when they are in season and following size and quantity limits. Many who regularly come crabbing at Boundary Bay, like Richard Wong, say they have seen a significant increase in the number of people illegally harvesting shellfish.(Tristan Le Rudulier/CBC)

Tira Chow started crabbing last year and has been surprised by how many people she sees gathering buckets of clams.

"I mentioned it to a couple of people, but they just ignore you. So I just think there should be more signs posted," she says.

Chow and Wong both feel the English-only signs posted are not enough, and need to be in multiple languages.

But Demsky says that's difficult given the variety of ethnic backgrounds of the people they are encountering. He says they have pamphlets in various languages and have put information out on social media and newspapers in different languages.

Signs are posted warning of the dangers of harvesting shellfish at entry points to beaches, but some say more signs and signs in more languages are needed. Officials say they have created pamphlets and social media posts in a variety of languages.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

New closures map released

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), which tracks cases of illnesses, is also trying to make it easier for people to know the rules.

It is launching an updated website this week showing all the locations of closures, and a guide telling people exactly what the different shellfish look like.

"A lot of times the poisonings we get, people said, oh, I harvested some clams. And when we ask them what type of clams did you harvest, they don't know," said Lorraine McIntyre, a BCCDC food safety specialist.

She says three people became ill from shellfish in April. But she says the numbers may not be representative, as many people don't report illnesses and some can only be confirmed by testing the contaminated shellfish and not the person.

As for the idea you can cook your way to a safe clam, that is simply not the case, McIntyre said.

"While cooking will prevent you from getting bacterial illnesses, it's not going to do anything with the toxins," she says. "They are resistant to cooking. And, in fact, sometimes the toxins get more potent after cooking."

A couple of hours of work can yield a basket full of clams. Fisheries officers worry people are underestimating the risks of harvesting contaminated shellfish.(Susana da Silva/CBC)

She says it is crucial for anyone who feels unwell after eating shellfish to contact their doctor or poison control immediately.

And while illness should be a deterrent, Demsky says, so too should fines. People caught illegally harvesting shellfish risk tickets starting at $250, with additional fines for each shellfish up to $100,000.


You can reach me by e-mail at or on twitter @CBCSusana.

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