Clam Gardens of Xwe'etay

By Dana Lepofsky

On the last low-low tide at the end of June, my daughter and went out paddling in Little Bull Pass–her to look for slimy and squishy things in the intertidal, and me to look for clam gardens. We were both successful.

Clam gardens, for those of you who don’t know, are rock walled terraces built in the lowest intertidal by First Nations to cultivate clams. Based on our work on Quadra Island, we know that First Nations began building these gardens at least 3,500 years ago. Our First Nations partners taught us how they used to roll rocks down the beach to build and maintain the terrace wall and to “keep the beach clean”. This was all part of tending the beach to ensure a lasting and abundant supply of butter clams, littleneck clams, and in some gardens, horse clams. Flattening the angle of the beach by building a terrace means that the lower part of the beach, which would normally be under water during most tides, means more beach is accessible for clam harvesting in more tides. Furthermore, by accumulating broken barnacles and coarse sands to create ideal growing conditions for clams, and because they moderate water temperatures in the winter and summer, clam gardenscontain2-4timesmore clams than beaches without rock walls.

While Indigenous People from Alaska to Washington State built and tended clam gardens, they did not build them in all bays. In some places, like northern Quadra Island, there is a rock wall in every small bay and along every rocky shoreline. In other places, like the islands around Xwe’etay/Lasqueti, they are much rarer. We may never know what combination of ecological and social conditions motivated people to build clam gardens.

Before our June low tide outing, I knew of only one place on the southwest side of Jedidiah that has beautiful rock-walled clam gardens (Photo1). But, on our recent outing, I found three more clam gardens in the same area. One is on the small island at the mouth of the pass, and the other two are also on the southwest shore of Jedidiah. All are only visible at the lowest tides, but the different heights of the walls suggests that they were used at variable times in the past–when sea levels were different than today. My favourite one is tiny–only about5meters long–and its wall is only 45cm above the zero tide. It seems to have been built for both butter clams and horse clams (Photo2). It is likely that these gardens were the property of a house group from one of the nearby settlements on Bull or Jedidiah; it would have been their responsibility to manage them.

Recognizing the importance of clam gardens to community health, several coastal First Nations are restoring clam gardens in their territory by rebuilding rock walls, removing seaweed, and tilling the beach. Many of you observed the extensive dieback of sea life during the late June heat wave. We should be very worried about the health of our oceans and also about our food security. It would serve of all well to respect and learn from Indigenous traditional management practices, including the value of local stewardship of our precious ocean resources.

Photo 1. Well-preserved clam garden terrace on Jedidiah Island. The wall is approximately 1.4 metres above zero tide - which is too high for butter and littleneck clams today. Its wall height suggests that it may be a relatively old garden that was used when sea levels were higher than today.

Photo 2. Small clam garden, very low in the intertidal (45cm above the zero tide). The terrace surface is covered with the shells of butterclams and horse clams which are now covered in seaweed. If the garden were tended (tilled, seaweed removed), it would be a productive spot to harvest clams - as it most certainly was in the past.