Counting clams: Fish and Game surveys Cook Inlet beaches with hopes of reopening to clammers
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game might reopen the razor clam fisheries in Ninilchik and Clam Gulch for the first time since 2014.
But before that can happen, biologists are hitting the beaches to count clams.
Technicians surveying the Ninilchik beach Wednesday used some unlikely tools to stir up the clams hiding underneath the sand.
Some held lacrosse sticks. Assistant Area Manager Holly Dickson used a high-pressure water pump connected to a fire hose to liquify the sand within a small circle of beach.
“Once the sand is liquified inside the plot, razor clams will just sort of float to the surface," she said. "Then people come in with these scoops and just filter through the water and sand.”
When they were certain there were no clams in a given plot, they picked up and ran to the next spot, chasing the tide as it quickly pushed out.
Dickson said the circular plot they probed is just one of hundreds they’ll survey this week.
“So we’ll start to get more into the best clam habitat once we get more like 300 to 500 feet out," she said. "The middle of the beach has the most clams, is what we typically see."
Fish and Game will use the clam counts to decide if there are enough to reopen sport and personal-use clamming in Ninilchik and Clam Gulch.
The closures have been a response to low razor clam counts on the east side of Cook Inlet. The clam population crashed about a decade ago and has been slow to bounce back. In the meantime, clammers and sportfish charters have been taking their shovels over to the west side of the inlet, where the population is healthier.
Fish and Game Area Manager Mike Booz said his department has been watching the clams closely.
“Really at the closure of the fishery — ‘16, ‘17, ‘18 — we saw really high numbers of juvenile clams," he said. "And so that’s really the first step for numbers to rebuild. You get new clams showing up on the beach. So that was kind of the bright spot. The downside was during those years we had really poor growth rates.”
Today, he believes there might finally be enough clams to justify reopening some beaches. The Alaska Board of Fisheries just approved a management plan that sets a threshold for restarting a limited fishery with a bag limit of 30 clams per day.
“This fishery is loved by so many Alaskans so we definitely like to hear from people and want everyone to understand, really, what’s going on with these Cook Inlet razor clams," he said.
Before the closure, the beaches on the east side were a mecca for clammers.
Brent Johnson started clamming with his family when they homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1950s.
They’d dig near their set-net site on the beach in Clam Gulch — named for its abundance of clams.
“I would describe it as great clamming," Johnson said. "I mean, a person who went out in that area, we would get a bucket of clams, the limit was 60. We could get that on any minus-one or two tides, something like that.”
For several years in the 1980s and 1990s, the sportfish harvest of clams was over 1 million.
Clamming was popular long before it became a regulated fishery. Johnson, who’s also a historian, knows the first, Alaska Native settlers of the land clammed, too. He’s found shells buried on his parents’ homestead.
And he’s seen surveys from the early 1900s that list “Clam Gulch” as a town name.
“And so ‘Clam Gulch’ must stretch back at least to 1920," Johnson said. "So it was known for clamming at least back as far as 1920, I would say.”
Johnson and his family clammed up until the closure, in 2015.
He’d cook the clams the same way his mom did when he was a kid.
“We either fry ‘em, or we have clam chowder," he said.
He’s not sure he’ll go clamming himself this summer if the fishery does reopen. He’s vegan now.
But Booz knows there are lots of people waiting, shovel ready, to dig into the east side beaches again.
Technicians in Ninilchik were several plots into their survey Wednesday when, at last, a small yellow clam bubbled to the surface.
Booz took out a ruler and pointed to the distinctly colored stripes on its shell, like the rings of an aging oak.
“So this is a three year old clam that didn’t quite grow enough to make it to the adult size this year," he said.
On the whole, Booz said it’s not looking too good for Ninilchik. But he’s more optimistic for the beaches Clam Gulch, where he thinks there will be enough mature clams to have a fishery.
He said his department will make a decision by the middle of next month. The fishery, if open at either beach, would run May through October.