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The Last of the River Rats

COLUMN ONE

Their numbers dwindling, clam divers plumbing the Mississippi for Washboards are up in arms over government orders to halt shell harvests. Crackdown adds to the woes of a slumping industry.

June 19, 1998|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MARQUETTE, Iowa — The river is his, 100 miles of silt-choked brown water and all the clams he can haul up from the murk until he drops from fatigue. Dan Davies has the entire upper Mississippi River to himself, a diver's paradise, but he wonders how long it will be before he too is banished from its depths.

Beyond blades of sun leaching through the cottonwoods and river maples, Davies nudges his flat-bottom boat out to pools where the clams lay stratified on the sandy Mississippi bottom like bricks in mortar. Fed oxygen through a hose, he crawls in a diving suit for hours on the inky river floor, filling net sacks with mollusks. River clams are his living, his primary source of income for the last 15 years, and his pride. Without them, he is lost on the land.

"This used to be a free river," Davies says. "Not no more."

The upper Mississippi is a shore of lost men these days, its waters nearly expunged of the "river rats" who plumbed deep there for decades. Davies, 38, is the last diehard clammer on the waterway's northern stretch. As recently as five years ago, he and hundreds of competitors trolled the Mississippi, reaping tons of shells for export to Japan. But many of them have left their livelihood, forced out by the vagaries of nature and the intrusion of government--an enforced absence from the river many fear will become permanent.

Clammers were outraged this spring when Mississippi River border states suddenly began banning them from their waters. Convinced that the river men have been dangerously depleting generations of prized Washboard clams, state regulators ordered a halt to shell harvests in Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri--and are pressuring to shut down the last open shoreline in Iowa.

"We're looking at a train wreck waiting to happen," says Kurt Welke, a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources biologist who long has warned that the river's clams are imperiled. "If we didn't move now, we'd regret it later on."

The crackdown comes at the worst possible time for a regional Midwestern industry already reeling from economic ills. For decades, the Mississippi's famed Washboard shells--known either as mussels or clams--have been craved by Japanese pearl growers for their ability to irritate the innards of Akoya oysters. Inserted into the Akoyas, the ground-up clams fertilized a steady supply of cultured pearls.

But in recent years, a virus sweeping through the Akoyas has killed off more than half of Japan's underwater oyster beds. The flattened demand for Washboard shells pared the industry's output to $11 million last year--a sixth of its record total from a decade ago--and has forced hundreds of clammers to find other work.

Because he is an Iowan and still has the legal right, Davies continues to dive. A few stubborn Iowa divers gave him some competition earlier this year. But even they soon vanished from the river, swept up by an ongoing federal probe that authorities say exposes the freewheeling and sometimes criminal activities of the clamming industry. A group of mussel divers and buyers were charged in April in a 59-count indictment, alleging they ranged from the Dakotas to Ohio, poaching and transporting thousands of pounds of clams to be sold to the pearl industry.

Hard Questions About Government Actions

The tough government actions have the whiff of finality, but they also have spawned hard questions about who the river belongs to--and whether the urge to regulate the upper Mississippi's marine life requires the sacrifice of an already ailing industry. While wildlife authorities insist that divers must be kept away from the Washboards to keep the mussels from dying off, clammers worry that they are the river's real endangered species.

"There's plenty of clams, but not plenty of us," says Bob Hagensick, a 73-year-old Wisconsin dredger who has harvested mussels for a half-century. "I'm semiretired, but I'd be out there today if they let me. You know the government won't open that river back up once they got it closed."

Even a comforting verdict of science is absent, leaving marine life experts torn over whose studies are the most accurate--and whether there is a clam crisis at all.

On one side, government scientists say that years of careful sampling of Washboard beds have convinced them that excessive clamming has nearly killed off the mollusk's youngest generations. Their conclusion is challenged by a clam industry study that estimates 550 million Washboards crowd the upper Mississippi. "Not exactly an endangered species," snorts Marian Havlik, an industry consultant.

The result is "a classic conflict between conservation and commerce. But there are no definitive numbers to prove that either side is right," says Richard Neves, a mollusk expert and research biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.

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