Pismo Beach
California mom's fine highlights need for regulations to ensure sustainable shellfish populations and industry success. YouTube Screenshot / ABC30 Action News

A California mother was slapped with a fine of over $88,000 after her children mistakenly collected 72 clams, believing them to be seashells.

Fresno resident Charlotte Russ took her five children on a year-end vacation to Pismo Beach, known as the "Clam Capital of the World." What began as a day of collecting seashells for her curious youngsters became an unexpected lesson.

"My kids, they thought they were collecting seashells, but they were actually collecting clams, 72 to be exact," Russ told ABC 7. To those unaware, California enforces strict regulations on clamming. Harvesting them is prohibited without a fishing license or if the clams fall below the size limit.

Mistaken Treasure Hunt Leads to Hefty Fine

Much to her chagrin, an official from the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife informed Russ that her five children had unknowingly collected clams without a license. Later, she received a hefty fine of nearly $89,000 for their innocent beach treasure hunt.

"It made me really sad and depressed, and it kind of ruined our trip," she said. Lieutenant Matthew Gil of the Department of Fish and Wildlife explained the importance of the regulations. According to Lieutenant Gil, clams must reach at least 4.5 inches to reproduce and maintain healthy populations year after year.

This is why protecting juvenile clams is crucial. Lieutenant Gil emphasised the importance of understanding wildlife regulations and proper mollusc identification. Clams, he said, have distinctive shells that are very difficult to pry open, unlike other shellfish.

"If you have a dead sand dollar, a dead animal, or something like that, or you have a broken seashell, that's fine," he said. Russ's children certainly learned a valuable lesson. Unlike Pismo clams, which have two tightly shut shells, the youngsters unknowingly collected clams with openable valves.

They're more cautious at the beach now, Russ explained. On the bright side, they've become experts at differentiating clams from seashells – a lesson none of us expected. Russ successfully argued her case before a San Luis Obispo County Judge, who reduced the fine to a more manageable $500.

To commemorate the ordeal, she even got a shellfish tattoo. "It was definitely one expensive trip to Pismo, unforgettable," she said.

Russ's mistake wasn't uncommon. Last year, San Luis Obispo saw 58 citations issued for illegal clamming. While warning signs were posted around the beach, she admits wishing she'd taken the time to read them.

While Russ' experience is a cautionary tale about the importance of understanding regulations, for those interested in clamming responsibly, there's a clear path to legally entering the industry.

Clamming Business: How to Start?

Beyond the ecological importance of clams, like the quahog's remarkable longevity offering insights into the North Atlantic's history, these shellfish also fuel a thriving industry.

Additionally, they can hold vital clues to unlock scientific mysteries. In a groundbreaking discovery in 2015, researchers identified a transmissible form of leukaemia in clams, raising concerns that contagious cancers might be far more widespread than previously thought.

Are you intrigued by the world of clamming? You need to understand that clammers don't sell directly to consumers but rather to seafood wholesalers who act as middlemen. These wholesalers then supply clams to grocery stores, restaurants, and seafood shops.

The wholesale price fluctuates based on market demand, but most clams average around $2.25 per pound, according to data shared by How to Start an LLC. Littlenecks, however, can fetch premium prices. Clamming income varies depending on effort and clam abundance, with some business owners earning $100-$200 per half-day of work.

Here's a roadmap to launching your own successful clamming business - the process can be broken down into ten essential steps:

Planning: This initial phase involves brainstorming your business concept, target market, and overall strategy.

Legal Entity: Choose the legal structure that best suits your business, such as a sole proprietorship or LLC.

Tax Registration: Ensure you comply with all federal and state tax requirements.

Business Finances: Open a dedicated business bank account and consider a credit card to streamline operations.

Accounting: Establish a system for tracking your income and expenses for tax filing and financial clarity.

Permits & Licenses: Obtain the necessary permits and licenses to operate legally in your area.

Insurance: Protect your business with appropriate insurance coverage.

Branding: Develop a strong brand identity that reflects your values and resonates with your target audience.

Website Presence: Create a user-friendly website to showcase your business and connect with potential customers.

Communication Channels: Establish a reliable business phone system to facilitate communication with clients and partners.