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Crash of Kenai clam populations mean much lower bag limits again this year

CLAM GULCH -- Spring is the time of year when clam hunters dig out their shovels, buckets and boots in anticipation of early-season clamming, when low tides and low crowds can result in high harvests.

Not so fast this year. New regulations for 2014 govern razor clam seekers on the Kenai Peninsula.

An area from the north bank of Deep Creek to a marker 3.2 miles north of the Ninilchik River will be closed to clam digging this year, and the remainder of coastline will have a reduced bag limit.

According to a press release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, clamming beaches along the east side of Cook Inlet outside the closed area, from the mouth of the Kenai River to the southernmost tip of the Homer Spit, will have a bag limit of the first 25 razor clams dug per day -- and only 25 razor clams in possession. The new regulations went into effect March 12 for the rest of the year.

This is the second season the bag limit has been lowered, due to the scarcity of clams. Previously, clam diggers could take 60 per day.

According to Fish and Game surveys conducted in April 2013, razor clam abundance at Ninilchik Beach was the lowest on record with a substantial decline in what are known as exploitable clams, those 3.14 inches or larger.

"The last survey showed some really low numbers," said Carol Kerkvliet, a Fish and Game assistant management biologist in Homer. "There were some pockets of clams, but quite a few areas with zero clams -- more zeros than usual."

The surveys are conducted by establishing a series of transects from the gravel line down to the low-tide mark and then using a water pump to loosen clams in the survey area.

The average number of clams in the survey area is then expanded to the total area to extrapolate an estimate for the number of clams for the entire beach. These numbers are added to the responses of returned mail-out surveys sent to sportfishing license holders, as well as to aerial surveys of diggers during peak periods.

From these surveys, Fish and Game has learned that from 1977 to 2009, average annual participation was approximately 32,000 digger days with an annual harvest average of roughly 800,000 razor clams. The peak of this activity was in 1994, when 48,500 digger days were spent to harvest about 1.2 million razor clams.

Kerkvliet said that it is difficult to say for certain, but it is believed the decline in abundance is related to poor spawning or settling success. "Razor clams are broadcast spawners," she said. That means males and females "broadcast" their sperm and eggs into the water, where they meet and fertilization occurs. Clam embryos settle into the sand and begin growing.

"Somewhere along the way, though, the process is being interrupted or some factor is having an effect. The male and females may not be close enough together where their gametes are connecting. Or they could be connecting, but the current is transporting them to another area where settling success is not high. It's tough to pinpoint the problem," she said.

Some have theorized that a tremendous storm in the fall of 2010 had an effect. Strong winds during a deep minus tide scoured clam beds, exposing thousands of mollusks, which then froze to death in below-freezing temperatures.

However, Kerkvliet said this storm's aftermath has been studied in collaboration with Alaska Pacific University and has not shown significant impacts. During spring surveys conducted in 2011 from the Ninilchik River north 3.2 miles, the numbers of clams found was well within historic rates of abundance, and the numbers from Deep Creek to the Ninilchik River were about twice the number of the 2005 estimate of 2.5 million clams, she said.

However, not long afterward, the clam population began to decline. Studies conducted in the same areas in 2012 revealed a 50 percent decline in population, followed in 2013 by a 95 percent decline from the 2011 survey numbers. The 2013 estimate of 79,000 razor clams was the lowest abundance recorded since the surveys began in the 1990s.

"Since the abundance of sexually mature clams in 2013 was at a record low and effort did not shift from the Ninilchik beach, this beach will be closed to the harvest of clams. To mitigate shifts in effort and harvest to other east-side Cook Inlet beaches it is justified to reduce the bag and possession limit to 25 razor clams," according to Fish and Game.

The abundance of exploitable razor clams will be reassessed on the Ninilchik beach in April and May to determine if these changes had a positive effect on the clam population.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for The Redoubt Reporter, where this story originally appeared. It is republished here by permission.

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