The Pismo Beach Clam, the Monarch Butterfly and the Channel Island Fox – a comeback story
The story comes from KCLU’s podcast The One Oh One. You can listen to the full episode here.
The elusive clam
We begin this comeback tale in a classic California coastal city located a little bit north of Santa Barbara.
When you arrive in Pismo Beach you notice this city loves clams.There are colorfully-decorated, giant concrete clam statues and many restaurants promise a delicious local delicacy – the clam chowder.
The only problem is the clams in your Pismo Beach clam chowder no longer come from Pismo Beach. They say, back in the day, bucket loads of clams could be gathered on the beach. But there hasn’t been a legal fishery or a legal-sized clam big enough to be harvested since the 1990s.
And as you can probably imagine, with so much of this city’s identity tightly encased in the Pismo Beach clam… I mean, there’s a clam festival after all, and the city was once known as the “clam capital of the world”…well as you can imagine finding out what happened to the Pismo Beach Beach clam became a priority for ‘Pismo Beachians’ – that’s not an official name, by the way.
Marissa Bills is a graduate student from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s biology department.
“The city of Pismo Beach came to Cal Poly and was really interested in seeing if researchers could bring the clams back,” said Bills.
We met on the boardwalk overlooking the beach where the Pismo Beach pier is. Children play on a squeaky swing set nearby.
In the six years leading up to 2021, Cal Poly researchers recorded only 20,000 clams. That’s just over 3,000 clams a year – and none of them were legal size. Legal size in Pismo Beach is four-and-a-half inches (it’s a little larger further north).
“So legal size is really important for the clam reproduction because larger clams will actually produce more eggs,” said Bills.
Basically clams get bigger with age and so making sure the older clams survive is needed for the species to recover.
So a couple thousand undersized clams found each year – it wasn’t good news. But this is where our tale takes a sudden turn… last year things changed.
“In 2021 alone. We found over 70,000 clams,” said Bills.
That’s more than three times the amount of clams found in the previous six years combined.
“So we're seeing a huge increase in the population, which is really exciting. And we are seeing clams getting larger and larger every year. So the population itself is growing, but the clams individually are also growing,” said Bills.
So what happened? Well, just like with the disappearance of the clams, researchers aren’t exactly sure why we’re now seeing a resurgence of the Pismo Beach clam.
“This is a project full of mystery,” said Bills.
There are some theories about the disappearance of the clams. Some think it might be linked to the return of otters in the region. Or that the clams were being over harvested. Or that there was an environmental change… perhaps all these things. But for the resurgence, Bills and her team don’t have a clue.
“At this point in time, we're really not sure which makes it exciting,” Bills said.
Exciting, but also an opportunity for lawlessness.
Matthew Gil is a lieutenant for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife – working in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.
“Unfortunately, with the resurgence of the clams, the poaching and the unlawful take of those clams has really kicked up immensely,” said Gil.
Gil joined us on the boardwalk that sunny day. He says the poaching of clams is now his number one priority.
“We issued in last year alone 215 citations for unlawful take or taking illegally of Pismo clams, which is more than any other violation we have in the county.
In 2021 wildlife officers seized over 17,000 illegally taken clams.
“An outrageously high number of undersized clams. None of those clams were legally taken. They did not meet the legal size requirement,” said Gil.
We take a walk down to the beach to see how many clams we can find.
“So there's one like right there,” said Gil as he pointed to a few clams on the top of the sand.
We start to notice a few broken shells. Probably from seagulls that tend to pick up the clams they find and drop them from great heights to break them open.
Bills, the clam researcher, begins to dig a small hole in the sand close to where the waves are lapping up the beach.
“So they're really found just in the top six inches of sand. So this guy just came from right here,” said Bills.
She starts to find more and more clams.
“So here's a good representation of some of the different colors that they can be. This one's much more kind of cream colored and then these ones are a little bit more orange and purple-ly,” said Bills.
Some of the Pismo Beach clams even have really distinct brown stripes on them.
Without much effort, we found a lot of clams.
Matthew Gil was concerned.
“It's exciting. But at the same time, it gives me caution, like when we get a 12 inch circle here and you're getting two dozen clams that are undersized, it just means that I'm like, OK, at some point this is going to end up getting poached pretty heavily here,” said Gil. “People are going to see you then take it, whether they know the regulations or not.”
Gil and Bills along with other clam enthusiasts are waiting for that holy grail of a legal sized four-and-a-half inch Pismo Beach clam. With the current rate of growth that could appear in the next few years. So the official comeback of the Pismo Beach Clam is possibly not that far off.
I ask both Gil and Bills if they have a plan for the day a legal sized Pismo Beach Clam reveals itself.
“Oh, what's the plan? I think it'll be a very exciting day for everybody,” said Gil. “I thought about that. It'd be really cool to have a press release or something like that to show off, like, hey, the efforts at Cal Poly has done to track these, the efforts that the law enforcement side has done, and then the efforts of the civilian side of volunteers and everybody working together and have a legal Pismo clam like that's going to be one of the best stories I think you could see in a long time.”
“Yeah, that'll be a really exciting day,” added Bills. “When we come out and survey, we do so only with the help of so many undergraduates. And so every time we come out here, I always tell them, ‘Who knows, maybe today's the day one of you is going to find it’,” said Bills.
That’s right – who knows, maybe even you will find it on a visit to Pismo Beach!
The delicate butterfly
Our next comeback tale takes us south to a community only incorporated 20 years ago.
The City of Goleta is the sixth youngest city in California and just like Pismo Beach, this city’s identity is linked to a creature that almost disappeared, but is currently experiencing a comeback – the Western Monarch butterfly.
“If you look at our city logo, the Monarch butterfly is featured prominently on it. It really is an identity for our city,” said George Thomson, the city’s parks and open space manager.
He says passion for the Monarch butterfly and the city’s local butterfly grove was one of the driving factors that motivated residents to get involved in politics and in the creation of the city.
It’s recently rained when I meet up with Thomson and so the air is fragrant and fresh and the ground is a little muddy in the Ellwood Mesa Monarch Grove.
It’s a eucalyptus grove with an unusual origin story. The trees are Tasmanian Blue Gums that were imported into California in the 1870s by a man called Ellwood Cooper. Cooper planted the trees because he thought he could get rich growing wood for the rail line being built between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Unfortunately his new growth eucalyptus trees twisted and dried out rapidly and were no good for timber.
But the bright orange and black monarch butterfly loved the eucalyptus.
“We don't have a similar type of native tree that grows to this extreme height, that grows this fast, that grows that far away from water,” said Thomson.
The butterflies thrived.
“We've been counting butterflies here for decades. So we know in the 90s, even as early as the 80s, the population here was very large. Meaning in the tens of thousands even higher than that in the low 100,000 numbers,” said Thomson.
Thomson said you would come to the grove and see the silvery blue-green tree leaves draped in Monarch butterflies
But then, much like the story of the Pismo Beach Clam, things changed. Over the last 10 years numbers started to decline rapidly and by 2020, only 16 butterflies were counted in the grove.
Those monitoring Western Monarch butterfly groves like the Xerces Society were worried – in 2020 they counted less than 2,000 butterflies across the entire Western United States. Degradation of monarch habitat has been blamed for these dismal numbers.
But don’t despair, as you’ve heard, this is a comeback story!
George Thomson and I take a trail into the grove to a secret spot that not too many people know about.
“Where we now have over 9,000 monarch butterflies clustering and fluttering overhead,” said Thomson.
The light is glistening through the trees and monarchs are dancing around us. It’s a pretty serene sight.
“This last year has been a bit of a ray of hope because we've had over 12,000 monarchs return to Ellwood,” said Thomson. “We know that that's still historically low compared to past years, but it is a good sign and hopefully a sign that we're on the upswing and we're not unique in the sense that across the state, we had about 250,000 butterflies counted this last winter.”
Just like that mysterious clam resurgence, experts aren’t sure why we’ve seen this upswing. With so many environmental factors at play as the butterflies migrate long distances from Canada and the western U.S. to the coast, there’s no one single cause to point to at this stage.
But to maintain and nurture the return of the monarchs at this grove, things need to change.
There’s an official viewing location in the Ellwood Mesa Monarch Grove where visitors have historically always gathered. But many of the eucalyptus trees have succumbed to drought in recent years and the monarchs don’t go there any more.
The butterflies like dappled shade and wind protection which the trees offer. And without that in the official main grove Thomson had to take me to this secret location which is now a better habitat for monarchs. But they’re not advertising it to the public.
“Just in our field of view, I'd estimate easily over 200 dead downed eucalyptus. And these are eucalyptus that are fallen over, partially fallen over, standing dead with trunks that you can't wrap your arms around, that's how big they are,” said Thomson.
This has all prompted the need for change.
“Most people would think this is absolutely beautiful and it is. But what I see is the monoculture eucalyptus, definitely see the butterflies, which is just amazing but it doesn't have native trees in the understory – basically just European weeds at the ground level and eucalyptus up top,” said Thomson.
And so the city is planning a major restoration.
“The restoration plan itself covers over 75 acres, this is the largest restoration effort that our city has ever undertaken,” said Thomson.
They’ll remove the dead eucalyptus and replace it with a more structurally stable and resilient species. They’ll plant 100,000 native plants and thousands of native trees like Coast Live Oak, Sycamores and Cottonwoods.
Thomson says this years-long plan will benefit the Monarchs and other species that use the grove and build on the recent comeback of this much beloved butterfly which is so important to residents of Goleta and the thousands of visitors to the grove each year.
The carefree fox
For our final comeback story and perhaps the most impressive of all, we have to spread our wings, just as the monarch butterfly has done on occasion, and leave the California Coast for the Channels Islands.
On the way to Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the eight Channel Islands, a pod of dolphins surfs the waves behind our boat, something the boat crew happily says they see all the time.
It takes just over an hour to get there on this serene day.
This island is pretty special. It’s like taking a trip back in time to see what California would have been like if it wasn’t inhabited by humans. It’s home to animals and plants you’ll find nowhere else in the world and some are so ancient scientists say it’s the equivalent of coming across a wooly mammoth.
After the boat docks at Scorpion Cove, and there’s a short orientation about the island, I head towards the nearby campground. A location that is a beautiful spot for an interview.
Lara Brenner is an island scientist with the Nature Conservancy – which manages about three-quarters of this island.
“We're in a glade of tall eucalyptus trees that are very fragrant. There's some campers getting ready to go on hikes for the day. We had a decent amount of rainfall in December that allowed some of the new grasses to come up, and some of the trees are putting out new leaves. So it's a beautiful day,” said Brenner.
Annie Little is the supervisory natural resource manager with the Channel Islands National Park – they manage the remaining land.
“You can hear among us, there's a Spotted Towhee that's off to our right in some lemonade berry. There's ravens that you can hear throughout. We've seen some butterflies as well. So it's a very peaceful setting,” said Little.
The three of us are on Santa Cruz Island to tell the remarkable comeback story of a creature that’s slightly smaller than a domestic house cat; with a fluffy gray, white and orange coat – I’m talking about the Channel Islands Fox.
As we sit at a picnic table, foxes are wandering around us foraging for insects and hoping to find food left behind by a camper. Brenner says they definitely have personalities.
“And especially here at Scorpion Campground, you'll experience some very mischievous foxes,” said Brenner. “They're clever and they have a little bit of island tameness. It's kind of like what you have heard about on the Galapagos Islands, where they don't exhibit what you would consider normal fear of humans or of predators, which obviously contributed to their near extinction a few decades ago. They will come up and steal your food if you look away. They can unzip tents.”
But as hinted at there, their lack of fear at one stage was disastrous for the island foxes. Annie Little explains.
“So biologists in the 90s were monitoring island foxes, and they started to detect a very serious decline of foxes in the wild. And in the 1990s, it was so critical, so dire for the foxes that we only had 15 foxes, for example, left in the wild on San Miguel and Santa Rosa Island,” said Little.
Those are two of the other Channel Islands.
What they discovered was a disastrous knock-on effect stemming from the dumping of the dangerous pesticide DDT off the California coast. The chemical made it into fish. These fish were then eaten by the bald eagle, which lived on the islands. The chemical contaminated the bird’s eggs and the bald eagle essentially disappeared.
With the disappearance of the bald eagle the golden eagle moved in. The key difference here is that the bald eagle didn’t eat the island foxes the golden eagle did. The foxes, with their lack of fear of predators, were decimated.
That’s when scientists took action – it was a huge collaborative effort. Foxes were taken from the islands into captive breeding. The golden eagles were relocated to the mainland. Eventually the ‘non-fox eating’ bald Eagles started to rebound.
And today there are over 60 bald eagles throughout the islands in at least 15 nesting territories.
The Channel Island Fox thrived and were delisted from the Endangered Species Act in 2016.
“And that marked the fastest recovery of any mammal off the endangered species list, so they were emergency listed back in 2004 and then removed just over a decade later,” said Little.
And the numbers continue to remain really healthy today.
“Currently on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa Island, we have over 2000 foxes, on each of those islands. So the population has rebounded tremendously and we feel like they're stable and sustainable,” said Little.
But with this incredible comeback story the scientists are not risking complacency.
Lara Brenner explains.
“Still, as part of our monitoring program, we do a lot of fox trapping to vaccinate them and put on radio collars so we can monitor their survival,” said Brenner.
And this isn’t the only animal or plant that’s part of the Nature Conservancy’s management programs on the island. They’re monitoring island spotted skunks; are close to getting some rare plants off the endangered species list; and they’re working on eradicating some pretty aggressive invasive ants.
I hike to the top of one of the island cliffs. As I stare out across the ocean at the California Coast in the distance I think of all three of the characters in this tale – the carefree, fluffy Channel Islands Fox; the delicate, mysterious Monarch butterfly; and the elusive legal-sized Pismo Beach clam… and how three unlikely creatures can be the source of such a hopeful story of comeback to so many people.
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