Have a Bad Night You’d Rather Not Remember? Try Amnesiac Pacific Razor Clams.

by Owen James Burke


Above: The Pacific razor clam. Photo: Jerry Kirkhart/Flickr.

Clamnesia: we don’t know exactly where or when, but the Pacific razor clam can, like all shellfish, pack a lethal punch. This toxicity is due to algae like Pseudo-nitzchiawarm water species that tend to do oh-so-well in urban areas where nitrates and phosphates–algal food–run full bore into the sea creating a veritable smorgasbord for the microscopic scamps.

While the algae are having a ball, they not only flood the water column with neurotoxic domoic acid, produced by their consumption our of potent, chemically enhanced nutrients flooding their habitat. Unfortunately, neurotoxins like domoic acid run straight up the food chain.

Among the hardest and most immediately affected fauna are filter-feeding invertebrates like mollusks. While clams can harbor the toxin without reaping its horrific effects which can include anything from general malaise to excessive vomiting, diarrhea, short-term memory loss and even death.

Razor clams are a popular diet of many sea-dwelling critters, not least of which seabirds. In 1961, amnesiac shellfishing poisoning (as it’s known) struck thousands of “crazed seabirds” in northern Monterey Bay. They thronged shore regurgitating anchovies (which had been consuming the neurotoxin through the algae they were eating) and crashing into buildings. This was, of course, produced the famous news report that inspired Hitchcock to go on and produce his 1963 classic, The Birds.

In 1987, a similar epidemic struck the shores of Canada’s eastern provinces between New Brunswick and Quebec, but this time from within its human population. 107 people in all were bugged by the pernicious poisoning. The luckiest patients experienced mild stomach illness, while the most unfortunate went absolutely mad. Others were consumed with rage, angst, misery and general hysteria. A number of people also experienced short-term memory loss (for good or ill), and 3, sadly, succumbed entirely.

Shellfish poisoning is not an uncommon topic of table-side discussion among gallows pole humorists, and today’s stringent water quality tests now allow gastronomers to eat highly impacted shellfish species with more comfort than ever.

Still, the Pacific razor clam is the bread and butter of Northwest Pacific native peoples like the Quinault tribe, who, in recent years, have had to give up on roughly 1/4 of their catch. A costly misfortune, and a severe detriment to their livelihoods.

Read more at Slate. -OJB

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