In Nikiski, there's a little-noticed seafood plant that processes and ships out fresh and fresh-frozen razor clams to all parts of the country. That's because it's currently the only one in operation -anywhere. The plant manager is Rusty Roessler, who's been in charge at Pacific Alaska Shellfish for the past 14 years.
"It's actually the largest razor clam plant in the world. And it is the only one in Alaska currently. The last several year there has been no commercial harvest in Oregon. I believe this will be the second year, and towards the end of last year they shut down also. They shut down because of PSP, paralytic shellfish poisoning that they had down there. And we've been able to keep going. So we're the only ones currently producing razor clams in North America for food."
He said one plant in British Columbia produces bait from razor clams.
Roessler says Pacific Alaska Shellfish owns 10 acres on the west side of Cook Inlet where the clams are harvested, and untouched by PSP, which has closed Kenai Peninsula beaches.
"These clams are harvested one at a time with a shovel. It's a very quick operation to dig down and to get it. And they're paid by the pound," Roessler said. "And a good digger can harvest… the average that we have is about 325 pound per tide is what each individual guy will dig."
There is chilled storage on the West Side, but when it's time for processing, the clams are brought across the inlet by air.
"We have our own (Cessna) 206 on tundra tires and our Alaskan Bush pilot who's been with the company 30 years, he flies over there, lands on the beach, loads up the plane with clams in buckets. We have the only washdown-proof 206 in the world, that they can actually hose down the inside of the airplane, except of course the cockpit," Roessler said. "And then fly back and lands at our strip over in Nikiski. We own our own landing strip. And then taxies right up to the processing house."
From there the clams are washed and vacuum packed and either shipped out fresh or frozen. At least two Kenai restaurants serve them, Roessler says, and they're sent to Costco as well.
And while Roessler has been here on the Kenai for over a dozen years, he's also worked in Togiak, Dillingham, Juneau and Pelican over his 36-year career in Alaska seafood processing. But on Thursday, Roessler will drive down the Alaska Highway and into retirement.
You can hear an extended conversation with Rusty Roessler about his three-plus decades in Alaska seafood processing on the August 16 Kenai Conversation.