While oysters are the darlings of raw bars everywhere, it’s the humble clam that has wetlands ecologist Theresa Sinicrope Talley smitten. So much so, she’s partnering with Carlsbad Aquafarm and is hoping to bring back three native species that, once plentiful, are now much harder to find in our own local estuaries.

“We’re looking at the Pacific Littleneck, and two Venus clams: the frilled chione and the California chione,” she said.

Just where have the once-abundant wild ones gone? No one knows for sure. Talley says declines in the wild populations could stem from increased pollutants, fertilizer and sewage spills that impact tidal water quality. Previous over-harvesting of wild clams, or an invasive East Coast snail known to prey on clams may have contributed to declines, and fingers also point to the loss of 75-90 percent of the region’s wetlands.

But where environmentalists may see that as grim news, Talley, a coastal specialist with California Sea Grant Extension Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, sees opportunity. While getting permission to reintroduce even a native clam species into the wild would be tricky, reintroducing it through aquaculture as a food item is another story.

“Our native clam wasn’t the one chosen for aquaculture,” she said.

Instead,  it was the manila clam, which originates from Japan, and was embraced by aquaculturists worldwide. It’s the one currently being grown at Carlsbad Aquafarm.

“Why not raise native clams? Instead of homogenizing the world, we add to our local diversity,” she says. “And if some escape? Great. The numbers are down so you could almost call it a restoration.”

Dennis Peterson, biologist and director of science for Carlsbad Aquafarm, says the idea dovetails with the farm’s philosophy.

“We always would like to culture a native species first. They’re well-adapted to the region we grow in. It helps raise awareness of native species, and gets people excited about taking an interest in their environment,” said Peterson.

But first Talley needs to secure a healthy brood stock of each species. She already has a few animals at the Carlsbad facility, but figuring out the right temperature, the ideal salinity and just how long it will take to get them to spawn and mature is still a mystery.

“That’s one of the things we still need to determine,” said Peterson. “The conditions in which we can grow them, and how long a grow-out period it may be, whether it’s two years or three years, we’re not sure.”

Talley has already applied for grant money to launch the project, but isn’t waiting to get started. Together with Peterson she’s already working out the aquaculture protocol for raising native species; and she’s is reaching out to restaurants like Sea Rocket Bistro, Harney Sushi, Truluck’s and Alchemy with plans for a future clam festival to get the word out that native clams could be supper club specials in the not-to-distant future.

“The overarching goal is to increase public awareness and enhance the local aquaculture industry,” she said. “Hopefully that will include seeing native clams on local menus someday soon.”

Clare Leschin-Hoar is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Follow her on Twitter @c_leschin or email her clare@leschin-hoar.com.

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