Outdoors/Adventure

Diggers could soon return to East Cook Inlet for razor clam harvest

East Cook Inlet’s razor clams could once again be up for grabs after a yearslong hiatus prompted by a population crash.

The sport fishery along the western shores of the Kenai Peninsula may reopen in June after being closed for seven years, said Mike Booz, Lower Cook Inlet sport fish area manager with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“This is just a fishery that people have a long history with, and would really like an opportunity to go razor clamming again in East Cook Inlet,” Booz said.

While the department is still assessing population sizes along beaches in the area, Booz said the department should know by mid-May whether Alaskans can dig for clams this summer. (The potential reopening was initially reported by KDLL and the Peninsula Clarion.)

Fish and Game has been monitoring clam numbers since the closure of the fishery in 2015. The numbers have increased, but not to historic population levels, he said.

The department realized the clams wouldn’t recover enough to support a year-round, 60-clams-per-day fishery, Booz said. Instead, Fish and Game created a plan adopted in March that would make room for a limited fishery, in which the clam population could continue to rebound and allow for clam harvesting along the way, he said.

“This new limited fishery that we created is just a harvest opportunity that we feel would be sustainable,” Booz said.

The new threshold for reopening the fishery requires clam populations to reach half the historical average population size, Booz said. It would allow for 30 clams per day, and the fishery would close at the end of September.

At the moment, the department is monitoring razor clam populations in two areas where clamming could reopen: the area around Clam Gulch, from the Kenai River to three miles north of the Ninichik River, and the Ninilchik area, from the southern boundary of the Clam Gulch area to the tip of the Homer Spit.

Those clam surveys are expected to finish up by mid-May, and then Booz said officials will know if there’s a big enough clam population to support an opening.

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If the new fishery opens, it will be accessible to residents and nonresidents with a sport fishing license. Clam diggers find the clams looking for what’s called a “show,” a little dimple in the sand produced by the clam. From there, clammers can excavate the shellfish using a shovel or clam gun, or even their hands. No heavy equipment is allowed.

Clammers find their catch in intertidal areas during minus tides, or low tides, which only occur in daylight through September.

The Clam Gulch area appears close to opening, with population estimates at the threshold for reopening, though there’s a bit more sampling to do, according to Booz. Ninilchik looks less likely to open, he said.

The razor clam fishery along East Cook Inlet peaked in the early ‘90s when over a million clams were harvested annually for roughly a decade, he said. But by the mid-2000s, the razor clams began to show signs of decline.

The clams had high death rates and low birth rates, though it’s not known what caused the decline, he said. There are likely multiple factors, including habitat changes in the dynamic, sandy, intertidal beaches where razor clams live. Plus, the decline occurred as the climate changed across Alaska, with less sea ice in Cook Inlet, potentially exposing beaches along the Inlet to winter storms.

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“There’s something in the conditions of Cook Inlet that are just less suitable for razor clams than what they once were,” he said.

One precautionary note around harvesting shellfish in Alaska: Harvesters are doing so at their own risk, given the presence of paralytic shellfish poisoning in the state, which can make people sick after consuming contaminated shellfish. However, there’s never been a documented case of someone getting PSP from eating Cook Inlet razor clams, Booz said.

Morgan Krakow

Morgan Krakow is a general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Oregon and spent the summer of 2019 as a reporting intern on the general assignment desk of The Washington Post. Contact her at mkrakow@adn.com.

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