This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode A Tale to Warm the Cockles of Your Heart, first released on April 7, 2020. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
ROBIN LITTLE WING SIGO: I have early memories of salmon bakes and clam bakes. And like, I can remember the smells really well. And I can remember looking through, cause I don’t like little neck clams. I only like cockles. So I would always be the one kind of looking for all those. And my dad would make sure that I would get some.
AZURE BLEU BOURE: They’re really important. They are a food of my youth, my mom’s youth, her grandma’s youth, like—it’s just something that we’ve grown up eating and missing.
SIGO: We would have a lot of clam bakes and there would always be some cockles in there and that those are pretty much gone away. We just don’t see them at all anymore.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Most Americans have never eaten a cockle—in fact most of us wouldn’t know one if it came up and hit us in the face. But we visited the shores of Puget Sound in Washington State where the local Native American tribes care about cockles a lot.
CYNTHIA GRABER: We spent some time with Robin and Azure, they’re members of the Suquamish tribe, as well as the local scientists there to hear about a program to bring cockles back. And we of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And although I love shellfish—I love oysters, and I love mussels, and I love love love lobster—I have never had a cockle. So what are they?
GRABER: What’s their relationship to the Suquamish tribe—and actually to tribes all up and down the west coast?
TWILLEY: Plus, why are they on the decline? Where have all the cockles gone?
GRABER: And what will it take to bring them back?
TWILLEY: This episode was made possible thanks to support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics.
GRABER: We should also say that we first learned about cockles in Puget Sound by reading a story in an online magazine called Crosscut by Hannah Weinberger, we’ll have a link to her story on our website.
VIVIANE BARRY: So we’re in central Puget Sound. In a body of water that we call Port Orchard Passage. This is a very good body of water for shellfish, because there’s a lot of current coming through this little bottleneck area there. It brings a lot of nutrients, food, oxygen.
TWILLEY: Viviane Barry is the shellfish program manager for the Suquamish tribe. And we met her and her colleague Jeff Moore on a tribally owned beach across the sound from Seattle.
GRABER: The area is famous for all sorts of seafood, especially shellfish—oysters, and geoducks, and of course clams.
BARRY: So we have different types of clams here. We have the, the native Littleneck clams. And we have an introduced Manila clam that’s very similar to the Littleneck, but it’s from Asia originally.
TWILLEY: And of course, there’s the star of today’s show, cockles. Which we actually couldn’t see.
BARRY: So they like to live in the lower intertidal zone and then the subtidal. Apparently there are more cockles living under the water than on the beach.
TWILLEY: For those of you who are not up on their whole tidal geography, the intertidal is that part you see at the beach: the wet sand that gets exposed as the tide is going out. The subtidal is under shallow water almost all the time. It’s that sliver of sand that only gets exposed at super low tides, like when there’s a full moon,
GRABER: And so to get to the cockles in that subtidal zone, Viviane and Jeff have to wait until the tide is at its very very lowest point. This time of year, that’s around 3am.
BARRY: We just go at night. We harvest at night. Yeah. [LAUGHS]
TWILLEY: We were out there during the day, but fortunately, there were some cockle shells available on a beach as a visual aid.
BARRY: I see a cockle there. Jeff, could you grab it? Yeah.
JEFF MOORE: Pretty weathered.
BARRY: Yeah, they’re weathered but they’re—you can see, they look like those ripple chips…
MOORE: They’re, they’re ribbed. They have these long ribs that come down longitudinally. This is what you would see when you’re looking in the garden, cockle shells, right, from the nursery rhyme.
GRABER: The shells were kind of round, more like a ball shape. The long ribs Jeff is describing on the shell, it’s those same lines in the cockleshell flowers that give the flowers their name. If you’ve never seen a cockleshell—and frankly, I hadn’t—as Jeff said, you might know them better from nursery rhymes.
TWILLEY: Mary Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row. No one knows exactly what the rhyme means; there’s a theory that Mary is Mary Queen of Scots and the cockle shells are somehow Catholic, but yeah. No one knows.
GRABER: And then there’s another old English rhyme I knew as a kid, it was actually a jump rope song for me, blue bells cockleshells…
CHILDREN SINGING: Bluebells, cockleshells, easy, ivy, over…
TWILLEY: That’s a British rhyme so they would have been talking about a different species of cockle—the common cockle, as its called, which you find in the UK and Ireland and Portugal and all down the Atlantic coast past Morocco.
GRABER: Cockles have long been a popular food in all these countries, just one of the many shellfish people enjoyed. You might have heard the Irish song Molly Malone, where she’s selling cockles in the streets of Dublin…
SINGER: She wheeled her wheelbarrow, through the streets broad and narrow, crying cockles! And mussels! Alive, alive-o.
TWILLEY: In the UK, cockles used to be a pretty common seaside treat, you’d often buy them boiled, served in a paper cone and sprinkled with malt vinegar. They were popular in the East End of London, and especially in Wales. But today, those kind of traditional shellfish, like whelks and winkles and cockles—they’ve become less and less popular.
GRABER: But while cockles are no longer common snacks in seaside towns, they are still actually harvested all along the coast of the UK. They’re shipped overnight to elsewhere in Europe, like France and the Netherlands, where cockles are still popular.
TWILLEY: A lot of places in the UK, that harvesting is still done by hand, using a cockle rake—it can be really dangerous work if you get caught by the tide. But while we were researching this episode, we discovered that, off the coast of Norfolk, they’ve developed an ingenious technique that involves driving boats around in circles. This is from a Channel 4 documentary about cockles.
CAPTAIN: What we do is go round the circle for about 35 to 40 minutes
CAPTAIN: And as the water drops, the boat’s propellor pushes the sediment away and leaves a ridge of cockles.
MAN: Suffice it to say, you use the boat to wash the sand away.
CAPTAIN: Yeah. Nicely done.
GRABER: There’s yet another species of cockle that’s widespread in Asia, in Japan these’s a popular cockle sushi that’s available only one month a year. But in a lot of places, cockle eating has really fallen off. The shells are hard to open, and especially these European cockles, there’s only a tiny bit of meat once you do manage to pry them apart.
TWILLEY: But West Coast cockles—like we said, they are a different species and they are most decidedly not dainty little things. They’re actually quite hefty.
BARRY: They probably can get about, a good four inches? Four or five inches. They can get fairly large and heavy.
MOORE: In terms of like, maybe a schoolboy size little apple.
GRABER: So cockles are bigger than clams, but they’re unusual in another way too.
TWILLEY: Most shellfish, like the littleneck clams and the manila clams that covered the beach we were on, they’re pretty stationary.
BARRY: And when they settle from a larva to an adult, they basically dig themselves in and stay in the same place for the rest of their lives.
GRABER: But cockles? They are not quite so sedentary.
BARRY: These cockles have a really heavy and strong foot and, they’re very mobile. So, they can escape their predators by just jumping away from them.
TWILLEY: This jump: it’s not just a little hop. This is a full-on leap!
MOORE: Leap. They, they leap away. So one of the faster sea stars is the Sun Star, Pycnopodia helianthoides.
TWILLEY: These sunflower sea stars are freaky looking. They range in color from bright orange to purple, they get to more than three feet wide and they have up to 24 arms covered in suckers.
GRABER: And they love to use those suckers to pull apart the two halves of a cockle shell, and then they chomp down the flesh.
MOORE: they can sense when the Sea Star’s trying to get a hold of them and they’ll use that foot to just kick away and they can jump.
GRABER: How high? How far?
TWILLEY: A foot? Like what are we talking here?
MOORE: We’re talking mostly sideways and then they kind of kick away and sort of roll along to get away.
BARRY: Yeah, maybe a foot or so at a time, but enough to get away from a sea star.
GRABER: And as long as there have been people living along Puget Sound, they’ve been eating these leaping cockles.
BARRY: Probably over 10,000 years? [LAUGHS] I don’t know. I mean, bivalves have been around for, you know, millions of years in the ocean and the tribes have been around these waters for at least, I think the archeological records say, at least 14,000 years.
TWILLEY: By all accounts, cockles are 100 percent delicious and a favorite food of the first nations people in the area.
BARRY: So they will build a large fire with rocks. So the rocks become very hot. And they will put the shellfish right over the rocks and cover them with seaweed. So they basically steam in their own juices.
MOORE: It’s over open flame and it’s—yeah. It’s the way they’ve been doing it for forever. So it’s—they’ve perfected the art. They’re good. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: What do they taste like?
MOORE: They’re really sweet. [LAUGHS] Really sweet and kind of a rich, kind of seafood taste. Little chewy, a little bit meaty. So.
GRABER: How do they compare to other clams?
MOORE: I would say more—there’s more richness in the flavor.
GRABER: So we went to the experts to hear more — Azure Boure is the traditional food and medicine program coordinator for the Suquamish tribe.
BOURE: Cockles are much more chewy. And you would like you had, you pulled the neck out and use, I scraped the body out and then the neck is just much more chewy and dense than a, than a regular clam. And just, I don’t know, it’s, it seems sweeter to me. But it’s, it’s a treat and so you just savor it or you dry them and then you nibble, nibble on them.
GRABER: Azure teaches classes about how to prepare and enjoy traditional Suquamish foods and plants. Like how to dry cockles.
BOURE: And so to dry you would just, you would either, like, dehydrate them or bake them in the oven really low and slow or put them in the smokehouse. Smoke house is the best, then you get the smokey flavor.
TWILLEY: Dried cockles apparently also made great teething rings for Suquamish babies.
SIGO: They’d tie a string on them and tie them and tie one to the baby’s toes so that if they were chewing on them and they started to choke, the baby would push their feet out and it would take the cockle out of their mouth so they wouldn’t choke on it.
GRABER: Robin Little Wing Sigo is the treasurer on the Suquamish tribal council, and as you heard at the beginning of the show, she is a huge cockle fan.
TWILLEY: She grew up harvesting them—she’d go out and walk the beach at low tide.
SIGO: My dad would call it the Cockle dance. He’d be like, go out and do the Cockle dance and you just walk around and you could feel them under your feet so you can just grab them
TWILLEY: But Azure told us you can’t really do the cockle dance anymore.
BOURE: I grew up being taught, you know, you could walk along the beach and your bare feet and you could just feel them and I don’t, I just don’t feel that anymore.
GRABER: Robin noticed the cockle decline over the past couple of decades.
SIGO: I feel like by the time I was in high school, we were only getting, you know, four or five cockles in a clambake. And because I only eat the cockles, I would always look for those. But we would always give them to the elders. They got them first. So you’d feed your elders first, and then. You know, some of like, my grandma knew how much I liked them, so she would always save one for me and give one to me. But there just weren’t that many. And then by the time I got back from undergraduate, which was about 1998, there just weren’t any, you just wouldn’t see them at anything. There were you know, still a lot of clams, but there just weren’t cockles. And we started asking questions about it.
GRABER: Robin started to think, something must be going on. So she tried to read up on them and figure out how bad the decline was or why cockles were disappearing.
SIGO: You know, when you look at all the research, there’s not a lot of research about cockles and there’s not a lot of research about what role they play in the environment.
TWILLEY: One of the reasons there wasn’t a lot of research for Robin to read up on is because cockles aren’t a commercially important species of shellfish.
JODIE TOFT: Cockles are a really fly-under-the-radar species.
GRABER: Jodie Toft is the deputy director of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund.
TOFT: There are different—lots of different species of cockles around the world, but the cockle in our neck of the wood: Basket cockle, Heart cockle, Nuttall’s cockle, all sorts of common names. But that cockle really hasn’t been studied that much, although it is a preferred food of not just the Suquamish tribe, but other tribes in and around this region. So not a lot known about the cockles, and breeding of shellfish doesn’t happen that often unless it’s for commercial purposes. And there was really no commercial purpose for, for this species.
TWILLEY: But why not, if they’re so delicious?
TOFT: I think so, I think in some way it’s just because—because the market was kind of blossoming for other species. And so oysters have really held the region tightly for so long. And I think that’s one of the reasons. Oysters, mussels. And then we have a bunch of other clams that aren’t quite in this boom and bust cycle as much as cockles.
GRABER: Jodie told us cockle populations seem to get really big and then fall off, and then grow again naturally, scientists think. And so that means they might not be as reliable to harvest commercially.
TWILLEY: Also, Viviane told us that these West Coast cockles have a really short shelf life, which makes it hard to get them to market. They only last a couple of hours out of water, in the refrigerator, compared to, say, Manila clams, that last a week.
GRABER: And so West Coast cockles had been sort of overlooked. Jodie and her colleagues at the Manchester research station have been working for years on the science of how to make food in the marine ecosystem of Puget Sound more plentiful, how to have really healthy populations. But they hadn’t studied the cockle.
TWILLEY: For a while, Jodie and her colleagues had been working on Olympia oysters, which are a tiny little oyster—the only oyster that’s native to the West Coast. Olympias were practically wiped out, and Jodie’s team have been leading their restoration in Puget Sound.
GRABER: They’re also working on other native shellfish such as abalone. And partnering with the Suquamish tribe and other local tribes has been really important to them for a while, so they reached out to ask what new research would be the most useful.
TOFT: And we said, well, you know, what are your first foods? What’s most important? Cockles, cockles, cockles.
TWILLEY: Basically, if you worked with shellfish in Puget Sound, and you partnered with the Suquamish, that’s what you heard — cockles, cockles, cockles.
SIGO: So Elizabeth Unsell is one of our Marine biologists here, one of our shellfish biologists. And she and I have kids in the same school program. And so I was really excited when she started working here for the tribe. And I said, if you ever want to be a superstar, you just have to figure out how to get cockles back.
GRABER: Elizabeth talked to her fellow biologists including Viviane Barry, and they came up with some ideas about how to get the cockle restoration project started. And they came back to Robin and the rest of the tribe with their plans.
SIGO: And the biologists would come in and they’re like, okay, we have all these plans to do this and this and this, but we are going to need some money. And we’re like, how much money are you going to need? And like thinking it’s going to be like $100,000 or something. And it was like, we’re going to need $10,000. We’re like, Oh my gosh, take 20,000, whatever it takes to do this. Like it’s one of the easy yeses because it’s that important. It’s that important culturally to all of us.
TWILLEY: So the cockle challenge was underway. And for the next chapter in our cockle story, we drove about an hour south, to visit the Manchester Research Station where Jodie Toft and her colleagues are based.
TOFT: For the untrained eye, this is just a random collection of buildings at a federal facility, tucked away in Manchester, Washington, which is a semi-rural area not too far from Seattle. But really, this is the heart of where shellfish research and restoration happens in Puget Sound.
GRABER: We walked into one of the buildings with Jodie and her colleague Stuart to see some cockles.
TOFT: Right now, Stuart is going to open up this kind of funky basket.
STUART RYAN: It’s like a shellfish purse.
GRABER: What’s going on here?
RYAN: So, yeah, these are a handful of cockles that are roughly 1 to 5 millimeters.
GRABER: They look like tiny little pebbles.
TWILLEY: These are baby cockles?
GRABER: They’re sery cute.
TWILLEY: So tiny.
GRABER: They are really tiny.
RYAN: These—these were from spawns that happened in early summer, June.
TWILLEY: Baby cockles are adorable, but, it turns out, they’re not that easy to produce. At least in a federal research facility.
GRABER: As Robin had found out when she tried to find examples of research on local cockles, nobody had ever tried to breed them.
TOFT: We have some magicians on staff here who are really good at breeding shellfish. And so we collected some cockles, brought them back here. Nothing happened. There was no magic. There was wonderful people doing great work and just a whole bunch of cockles sitting in buckets of water and they were not making any baby cockles.
GRABER: But even before Jodie and the team tried to get the cockles to spawn, they had to make sure that they had healthy cockles. And Viviane says that wasn’t so easy either. Because some of the cockles had cockle cancer.
BARRY: And they determined that they had a communicable cancer, neoplasia, so they could not be brought into the hatchery right away. So they had to be quarantined for two weeks in a lab about 50 miles away. And kept in a—each individual in a separate bucket while they were tested for neoplasia.
TWILLEY: See, even shellfish have to be quarantined! We really are all in this together.
GRABER: After quarantine, the cockles had to be tested to see if they were sick. Sound familiar?
TWILLEY: Fortunately there were enough tests. But it turns out that when you test a cockle for cancer, sometimes the stress makes them spontaneously release all their spawn in a last ditch attempt to leave a baby cockle behind.
TOFT: And we certainly had concerns that we were going to do a great job screening for neoplasia. And then we will have spawned all of our cockles and then that would be that.
TWILLEY: Because once a cockle spawns, it takes months before it’s ready to make babies again.
GRABER: Luckily the cockles did not shoot their load, and that was in part because the team had another magician on staff with a very gentle touch to get the blood they needed for their cancer tests.
TOFT: She was kind of—kind of got the nickname the, “the cockle vampire” because she was so good at drawing blood.
TWILLEY: After the cockle vampire had done her thing, all but five of the cockles tested clean, which left Jodie and her team with 30 cockles to make babies from. This was their brood stock. And then the fun really began
TOFT: So we tried the first time around. Failed. Tried again. Failed. Maybe we could call it we learned, not failed, but yeah, we failed. They didn’t produce anything. And then the third time around, we brought them in and used a technique that’s pretty common in other kind of production of shellfish, other commercial techniques, and injected them with serotonin, and boom. They, they were off to the races.
GRABER: And this also took a gentle touch because the scientists had to inject each cockle, by hand, in the gonads, with a personal shot of serotonin—the cockle Viagra.
TWILLEY: Just to make things even more interesting, Jodie and the team had to set up a group sex situation, because cockles have a tendency to fertilize themselves.
TOFT: It’s actually called selfing. So, yeah. So, the sel—[LAUGHS] the selfing, which your face is not making it easy for me not to laugh. But you know we’re professionals here.
TWILLEY: We are such professionals that we are going to say it again just for the giggles. When a cockle does the baby making thing by itself, that’s called selfing.
GRABER: Uh-huh. And that’s because cockles are actually hermaphrodites. The same animal can be at different times either male or female. So if a cockle is alone, and it releases eggs, then it can release sperm next and fertilize its own offspring.
TOFT: So the selfing that comes from the hermaphroditic spawning of the cockles—also a great sentence to get to say—is, you know, it can be a challenge for maintaining genetic diversity.
GRABER: If a cockle creates thousands of baby cockles and they’re all exactly the same genetically, that would not be a good thing. As Jodi says, there’d be basically no genetic diversity.
TWILLEY: So with the group sex tank and the cockle Viagra injections, the setting was finally right. And the result was, cockle babies.
TOFT: About a million baby cockles, many of which are out with partners at Suquamish now growing bigger, bigger, bigger.
GRABER: They took all those baby cockles and put them out in the shallow water of the sound in a FLUPSY, which is an acronym for Floating Upweller System.
BARRY: It’s sort of like a nursery for clams that is outside. So there’s water flowing through 24/7. So they have food all the time and oxygen all the time. And that’s where they are right now.
TWILLEY: Once the baby cockles get to about the size of a quarter, they can start living where cockles belong, in the intertidal zone.
BARRY: We thought that they would have been ready by now, but they’re growing very slowly. There’s not that much food in the water right now, although they’re not dying. They’re just kind of waiting, waiting for spring, waiting for the big phytoplankton bloom. And I think they’re really going to start to grow soon
GRABER: Some of the cockles they raised were extra tiny, little stragglers. Those are the ones that Jodie and Stuart had in the building to show us.
TOFT: Okay, well, let’s go look under the microscope.
RYAN: Yeah. [DOOR OPENING]
TWILLEY: We wanted to see them jump! But cockles don’t do anything on demand apparently
GRABER: Okay. Let’s see here. Oh, yeah. Yeah they’re—just—I don’t, they’re not opening. It’s just the shells. The shells are beautiful.
TOFT: And I have a whole bucket of shells that I will show you in a bit, because as exciting as, you know, 5 millimeter baby cockle is, it’s not exactly a meal’s worth.
GRABER: Right. [LAUGH] No we only— looking at it, you can imagine what they’ll look like when they’re big. They’re miniature version.
TWILLEY: I mean, the crazy thing about looking under a microscope is they do look big, so. [LAUGH]
GRABER: I’m like, oh look, dinner! No.
GRABER: It was really fun to see miniscule baby cockles under the microscope, but what we really wanted to know was, when will they be ready to eat?
SIGO: So that’s the question we keep asking. Our biologists are constantly hearing from us, so when will they be ready? When will they be ready? Because you know, people talk here about like medicine in terms of food as medicine and, sometimes people say, I need to feed my Indian. And it’s that old school Indian, it’s that ancestor piece inside you that really needs that. These foods, these sovereign foods that we’ve had since time immemorial.
BOURE: The last time I had cockles was about three months ago, but before that it had been about two years. Because I just don’t… want to eat them before we can save them. [LAUGH] But what I had to have some. You’ve got to feed your Indian sometimes. [LAUGH]
TWILLEY: So right now, everyone’s waiting on these baby cockles out in their FLUPSYs.
GRABER: Robin walked with us down to the beach. We could see the FLUPSY from the shoreline.
SIGO: We’ve been really active in this project, and I feel like part of that is us just going out there to check on them and to love them and to see them grow and witness their story so that we can share that story. Witnessing is a really important part of our culture.
TWILLEY: Robin loves her cockles so much that she told us she regularly walks down to the beach just to visit the cockles and keep them company as they grow.
SIGO: You know, we have a big auntie and uncle type culture here. Like everybody’s your auntie, everybody’s your uncle, cause you’re, you’ve got eyes on everybody and you support everybody. Or you’ll call them out if something’s not going right. And so for me it’s like, the ultimate auntie love that I can give is to go visit these cockles and tell them how much we’ve been waiting for them. And that we hope they do really well, because we know that they understand, too, that process of: they’re growing to feed us. And we know that they, that they want to do that, that they recognize that that’s part of their purpose. And the other part of their purpose is to be part of a healthy ecosystem here in the Salish Sea.
GRABER: And scientists have a lot to learn to understand that part of the cockles’ purpose, being part of a healthy marine ecosystem.
TWILLEY: For starters, no one know exactly how many cockles there should be—and so they can’t know just how bad the drop in cockle numbers really is.
BARRY: It’s hard to say, here, because unfortunately, we don’t really have a good baseline for cockle populations. Anecdotal evidence from elders who have harvested their whole lives, who are in their 70s and 80s, they claim that there has been a decline.
GRABER: Scientists don’t doubt that the native communities have seen a decline—but, in part it’s hard to figure out how serious that decline is, because nobody has data on cockle populations from decades or centuries ago, nobody has those baseline numbers.
TWILLEY: And there’s another wrinkle that makes it tricky to know just how bad things are for the cockles: because it seems as though their population numbers fluctuate quite a bit normally.
TOFT: These are great boom-and-bust species. They recruit in mass to some beaches, some years. And we don’t really know why. Which is kind of how you could end a lot of sentences about marine science: “and we really don’t know why.” And so that’s just opened up a whole ‘nother path of research to try to understand, is it the temperature of the water? Or is it the, you know, the slope of the beach? Is that the substrate? Is it the other animals that are in the area?
TWILLEY: Jodie and Viviane say it’s possible that there are still plenty of cockles but they’ve just moved into cooler, deeper water as the oceans have warmed up with climate change.
BARRY: They may be more sensitive to temperature changes. So, they may be really hot in the summer. Now, they may be moving more toward the subtidal area because of increase of temperatures.
TWILLEY: So now Jodie and Viviane have to figure out how to count cockles underwater, to see if they’re actually there but just hiding out in the subtidal zone.
TOFT: And so Suquamish divers have been out and will go out to survey some of these areas that have been historically important cockle beaches, to try to get that kind of hidden count of what’s there for cockles. Because knowing what you have is pretty important for figuring out how many you need you need to try to put back.
GRABER: These are all big questions. And there’s another question they have to figure out before they even consider using the full-grown lab-bred cockles to try to restock any beaches: how different are the genetics of the cockles from one beach to another?
TWILLEY: If cockles along different parts of the west coast have formed really distinct populations, then it would be a mistake to come in and seed California or Oregon coastlines with Puget Sound cockles—you’d risk wiping out all that important genetic diversity.
TOFT: And so one path that we’re taking is mapping out the genetic diversity of cockles from Alaska down to California. Trying to figure out, are these really similar, or are these really dissimilar? And that helps us inform how we might do restoration.
GRABER: Like, would they need to breed local cockles for each beach restoration, or can they just take the brood stock they’ve been breeding out now and use that tp repeatedly populate beaches up and down the coast?
TWILLEY: Jodie and Viviane have had success restoring Olympia oysters, and some other species of clams. But cockles are a real challenge. Even if they figure out all of these unanswered questions, and get to the point where they can reseed all the beaches, there’s no guarantee the cockles will stay put.
BARRY: The difference with the cockle and the Manila clams is the Manila clams in general will stay in the area where you plant them. But cockles could just move around. If they don’t like it there, they’ll leave. So we’re going to have to try to wrap our minds around how we’re going to monitor the success of these enhancement activities. Because, we don’t know.
GRABER: So it’s hard to tell how big a problem this is, and it’s hard to figure out just how to reseed beaches and then how to figure out if they’re successful.
TWILLEY: But even with all these uncertainties, the one thing the scientists are sure of is that this project is still really important
BARRY: Absolutely. I mean, each species that is native to this ecosystem in this environment, it’s, it’s—they’re all related. They all live in harmony with other species. They provide food for crab. They provide food for birds. And so removing—any time you remove a species, it definitely impacts the environment. We, what you want in, in the environment is as much richness, species richness, as possible.
TWILLEY: And cockles, like all shellfish, are especially valuable because they help clean up some of the pollution that we humans put into the oceans.
GRABER: One way they do this is they take up nitrogen from water—and actually a lot of nitrogen is from farming run off—and they use that nitrogen to build up their bodies. They filter out a lot of things, and that makes the water cleaner.
TWILLEY: As well as excess nitrogen, one of the big problems facing our oceans is acidification from climate change. That happens as the water absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So Jodie’s been testing some of the baby cockles in more acidic conditions.
TOFT: And cockles are actually doing quite well. Which is awesome because ocean acidification is not awesome! And having some species that are designed to be in this area, that have been in this area persisting for a really long time—having them show signs that they might actually be able to deal with those acidic conditions, is a good thing. We will take that. So we’re going to test that out in a much more robust manner in 2020. And TBD. We’ll see what we find.
GRABER: So there’s a lot still to learn. And Robin says deepening our understanding of cockles will deepen our understanding of the waters they live in.
SIGO: Cockles are an important part of tracking how our seas are doing. And our seas aren’t doing well. You know, we see these as indicators of other things going on in the sea and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t step in to do something about it. So cockles, sea cucumbers, the eel grass. You know, I mean, and then to things as big as orcas and seeing what’s happening with them and you know, really… experiencing that hurt. So when we can do small wins like this, it doesn’t feel small. It feels like everything.
TWILLEY: Robin says cockles will likely never be a huge part of her tribe’s diet, let alone others in the region. But they still matter.
SIGO: When you’re eating locally, you are really working to save your environment. You’re really working to build up your local ecosystem and there ends up being a lot of community around that. And community has consistently been a place to build resilience, build resilience as a person, as a community. And also environmentally. Resilience is one of the most important things that we can be working on right now.
GRABER: And even more than resilience, cockles matter because Robin’s people have been eating cockles for thousands of years.
SIGO: So bringing back a traditional food is the piece that reminds us of who we were. And it feels like a voice from your ancestors coming back to feed you, and to tell you that you’re okay, and that they’ve always dreamed this for you. There’s a lot of songs that talk about—traditional songs that talk about standing on the shore and waiting for your people to come home. And that’s what this is. This is part of our people coming home, because we get to feel that. We get to taste that.
TWILLEY: So yeah, Viviane may be worried about how to measure the success of this project in terms of cockle numbers, but Robin knows exactly what success would look like
SIGO: My dream for this project is that we have an abundance of cockles again. So that we can have cockle bakes, so they’re not just clam bakes. We can actually just have cockles there. People know what they are. I want my kids to have a taste and a hunger for them. They don’t have that right now because they haven’t really tasted them very often. And I want that piece in our history that shows the success of us bringing this back, that it was lost and we were able to do this. And I hope that gives inspiration to other indigenous communities on bringing back their traditional food. And I really hope that it’s a reminder to the United States and other governments that what’s good for Indian country is good for the whole country.
GRABER: And other indigenous communities are paying attention. Cockles were incredibly important to tribes up and down the West Coast. Robin met with representatives of other tribes on a trip to DC to testify about the impact of climate change on her community.
SIGO: Oh my gosh. I got asked so many times when I was back in Washington DC, how are the cockles doing? What’s going on with them? And they’re really excited about it. So on days when I do things like this, when I’m talking about cockles, I say I’m cockle dancing. Because that’s what it feels like to me.
TWILLEY: Robin definitely sees the cockle project as an inspiration to invest in other efforts to restore first foods. But really, it’s also just about throwing the world’s most awesome clambake.
BARRY: They say when the tide is out, the table is set. That’s like, a saying you hear at every tribe, and every tribal elder will tell you that. And, just the thought that there is hope to bring back some of these populations on the local beaches. It’s it’s a tremendous joy for everyone.
SIGO: I think we took cockles for granted for so long, and we expected that they would always be there, but that now they aren’t there, we are looking back at, were there any ceremonies around cockles? And if there weren’t or we’ve lost that piece now that reminding ourselves that, that our culture is a living, breathing thing and that something new is going to come from this. So we will definitely have a ceremony welcoming them back and we will be utilizing all of these skills and these resurgence that have happened and that our ancestors will make sure that we know how to honor these cockles in the way that we were meant to. [PAUSE] How cool is that, right?
GRABER: I know, it’s amazing.
SIGO: Oh my gosh.
TWILLEY: I got chills.
GRABER: I know!
GRABER: If you’re listening to this show when we first released it, you might notice that we have fewer ads than usual. Of course, that’s because of the global pandemic that’s going on right now, unsurprisingly companies are pulling ad money. We know a lot of you are having a tough time, and we hope you’re all staying safe and healthy. But if you are in a stable financial situation, we wanted to remind you that it is just the two of us working full time on this show, and listener support is critical. If you do happen to have a couple of bucks to spare to support the show, even a dollar an episode is amazing. It makes a huge huge difference. Gastropod.com/support, or find us on Patreon.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to Vivianne Barry and Jeff Moore of the Suquamish Tribe Fisheries, Jodie Toft of the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, and Robin Sigo and Azure Boure of the Suquamish Tribe.
GRABER: Thanks also to Hannah Weinberger, who wrote a story about the cockle restoration project in the online magazine Crosscut. We have a link to everyone’s work plus lots of lovely photos of cockles on our website, gastropod.com.
TWILLEY: This episode was made possible with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation program for the public understanding of science, technology, and economics. And with support from Ashley Belanger, who is our fabulous intern this spring!
GRABER: We will be back in two weeks with an episode that’s orange, blue, and red all over!