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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

Divers have a hard time understanding why they are being singled out as the clams' predators, when pollution, barge traffic, habitat disturbance caused by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams and the invasion of razor-sharp zebra mussels all have been cited as hostile influences on the river's aquatic life.

"You tell me, are we any worse than these things?" Davies said, hauling massive brown crystalline tapestries from the river. They were single Washboards, hidden under jagged, parasitic hives of tiny zebra mussels.

Wildlife specialists like Wisconsin state biologist Mike Stagg say they have little jurisdiction in containing most of the river's ills. But "we can stop clammers when they get too greedy," Stagg says.

Despite the environmental and human onslaught, Washboard populations in the upper Mississippi remained so plentiful that the region's clamming industry stayed unregulated through the mid-1980s.

But the coming of the divers alarmed upper Mississippi wildlife agents. The numbers of licensed clam divers suddenly skyrocketed. Washboards began to fetch dramatic price increases--in Iowa, shells rose from $200 to nearly $500 a ton. Clam harvests fetched nearly 1,500 tons of shells in 1985--vastly outstripping previous years.

Marine biologists like Welke and Stagg took these changes as evidence that Washboards might be in jeopardy. In Wisconsin and other river border states, wildlife agents began setting limits on shell sizes and increasing license fees. Harvest seasons were limited. Night clamming was abolished. And as guidelines were codified, biologists began taking regular samples from clam beds to see if the populations were holding steady or declining.

It was not long, Welke insists, before the studies confirmed their fears. When he and other state divers returned year after year to shell beds off the Wisconsin banks, they found some of the youngest Washboards missing--an indication that the harvest of adult clams was interfering with the creatures' breeding.

"We kept finding fewer and fewer young Washboards," Welke says. "There were plenty of older generations there, but as they picked off more and more of the adults, the stock of younger ones kept dipping."

Mollusk experts such as Neves and Ohio State zoology professor David Stansbery disagree. Young mollusks, they contend, are often buried in sand deep under the river bottom--easily missed even by trained divers.

"Just because you can't find juveniles doesn't mean they're not there," Neves says. "On a turbid river bottom like the Mississippi, it's easy to miss them."

Confident they missed nothing, Welke and other state wildlife officials began pushing last year to ban clammers from taking Washboard shells from the Mississippi. To the biologists, it hardly seemed an onerous move. Divers, Welke said, could still compete for more plentiful river species like the Three Ridge mussel.

That concession draws guffaws from river veterans like Ballenger. Cutting off the supply of Washboards, he groused, was "stealing Butchie's wallet. The Japanese don't want Three Ridges. The shells ain't valuable. If the virus over there is so bad that we can barely get them interested in Washboards, why would they care about a Three Ridge?"

River rats were scrambling to find other work even before the states moved. The mysterious virus among Japanese oysters had depressed the value of Mississippi Washboards to the point that only hoarders like Davies and Ballenger were still seeking shells. Others, like Hagensick and his sons, turned to logging and trapping. Some, like Greg Wadden, a Muscatine sheller who once sold exclusively to Ballenger, gave up for good, becoming a roofer.

"Even if I wanted shells, there's almost nobody out there willing to dive," Ballenger said.

But federal prosecutors charge that as the Mississippi market fell, clammers looked elsewhere for shells--sometimes in states closed to clam harvests. For four years ending in 1997, federal agents charge, Ballenger, his wife, Cheryl Ann, and four divers conspired to poach Washboard shells from lakes and rivers in Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

Illegal Clamming Scheme Alleged

Ballenger shrugs off the accusations as "a set-up. I bought from these guys, but I never told them to go out of state. I don't work that way. I buy from whoever comes to me with clams. I don't ask where they got them."

The illegal clamming scheme arose, says Walt Kocal, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent in Des Moines, because the defendants wanted to harvest shells in lakes and streams far from the competition of other divers and the scrutiny of enforcement agents.

"These areas were all off-limits, and these individuals knew that," Kocal said.

To Welke, the indictments came as one more sign that Washboards were becoming scarce in the Mississippi. "Why would these guys travel hundreds of miles from their home base if they could get what they wanted at home?"

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