Cause of razor clam decline remains mystery

Razor clamming, the muddy, yet popular sport that attracts thousands of visiting and local outdoor enthusiasts to the lower Kenai Peninsula’s beaches each year, has been prohibited on the east side of Cook Inlet for the remainder of 2015. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the measure in an emergency order last week. The affected area spans from the mouth of the Kenai River to the tip of the Homer Spit. 

The decision to close the beaches to all harvest was based on abundance surveys at Ninilchik South Beach and Clam Gulch Beach, which demonstrated the population of razor clams has significantly decreased from historic averages.

Additionally, fewer young clams are settling on the beaches, and the breadth of age classes has gone down.

“We have really high natural mortality coupled with really poor recruitment of juvenile size clams,” said Mike Booz, sport fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

In 2014, on Ninilchik South Beach, the number of mature clams was 82 percent lower than averages from periodic surveys conducted over the last 20 years. In Clam Gulch, the abundance of mature-sized clams was 89 percent lower than averages from 1998 to 2008.

Biologists have been conducting clam surveys of the beaches around Ninilchik and Clam Gulch for more than 20 years. Surveys are carried out at very low tides by pumping water into the beach substrate at designated locations in order to emulsify the sand and bring the clams bubbling to the surface, where they are measured, counted and logged before being returned to the sand. 

In 2013, approximately 1,000 plots were surveyed at Ninilchik’s south beach. From that data, ADFG derives an abundance estimate for the entire beach, which they balance against estimated harvest to calculate the exploitation, and determine whether the population can still sustain a human harvest. 

ADFG maintains that until 2012, the razor clam population at Ninilchik and other area beaches was large enough to sustain a 60-clam bag limit. The highest abundance ever of mature-sized clams on Ninilchik’s south beach since surveys began occurred in 2011. Even with a harvest of 98,000 clams, the exploitation was low, at 6.1 percent. 

In 2013, however, abundance dropped dramatically, and the bag limit was reduced to 25 clams per person accordingly. In 2014, the abundance was still too low to support a high-traffic harvest, so the Ninilchik beach was closed entirely to clamming. 

Carol Kerkvliet, assistant area management biologist for ADFG, believes that while the reason for the abrupt decline in population since 2011 is largely unknown, it is not linked to overharvesting. Mature-sized clams simply are not living as long as they were before, and fewer young clams are settling on the beaches.

“We had that (60 clam) bag limit throughout most of the ’70s, and most of the 2000s and beyond, and it sustained itself,” she said.  

Several Kasilof residents disagree and believe ADFG should have enacted stricter regulation sooner. 

Liz Chase, a long-time Kasilof resident and set-netter, has been clamming on the beach near her home for the last 30 years. 

“In my opinion, we’ve had wonderful clamming for years and years, but as the pressure increased, the limit (of clams) people should have gotten should have decreased. I just feel the clams couldn’t keep up,” she said. 

Chase went clamming once last year and found only seven clams. She believes the high volume of visitors from the Anchorage area has taxed the resource beyond what it could handle, resulting in a total loss for those who live here.

“For the local people it’s heartbreaking because we think of this as our land, when in reality everybody has access to it. … I feel like it’s the tragedy of the commons,” she said. 

Brent Johnson, another long-time Kenai Peninsula resident, moved to Clam Gulch in 1959 when he was 4. He remembers digging clams off his parents’ setnet site at low tide as a kid, the shellfish playing a key role in their diet.

“When we grew up we homesteaded and we kind of needed the clams,” Johnson said. “We shot moose, we picked cranberries. Now, it’s not a necessity.” 

Over the years Johnson said he’s witnessed people taking more clams than the bag limit.

“The thing has been abused a lot. People dig more than they can clean,” he said. 

Kerkvliet estimates it will take between 2-3 years for sufficient numbers of mature-sized clams to reappear on the beaches. Additionally, the reopening of the beaches is contingent upon a large recruitment of new juvenile clams. Recruitment, the step in which free-floating clam larvae take hold in the sand, is a highly variable process that is not well understood. 

“There’s a fair bit of things that have to go right for razor clams to end up on these beaches, and historically that has happened, and why it isn’t happening now is a hard question to answer,” said Booz.

For business owners such as Jim Clark, who bought the Ninilchik General Store in October of 2013, a multi-year closure leaves him stuck with a large inventory of rubber boots, clam shovels, and clam guns he can’t sell, and a deficit he’ll have to struggle to repay. Clark thinks last year’s closure of the beaches around Ninilchik came out of nowhere.

“Everybody got caught. Whoever supports inventory and employees to handle that traffic flow, they got caught unawares, and it hurt,” he said. 

Ross Cameron, the president of the Ninilchik Chamber of Commerce and owner of Rosco’s Pizza, has a more optimistic take on the closure. Ninilchik had a trial run last year when the local beach was closed, and the effects were not as bad as expected, he said.

He believes the closure lends itself to opportunity for Ninilchik. Some fishing charter operators have started offering combined halibut and clamming trips that take clients to the west side of Cook Inlet to harvest clams where the population is still healthy and abundant. The closure might also encourage visitors to try something new in Ninilchik, Cameron said.

“It used to be a one story town, it was halibut and clamming, and that’s not true anymore. We’re diversifying,” he said. 

Cameron said the Ninilchik chamber fully supports the closure. 

“We need to find out what’s going on before we expose ourselves to any other damage to this resource,” he said.

Katie Gavenus, an educator at the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, also believes more knowledge is crucial to effective marine stewardship. 

“Here in the Kachemak Bay area we are really lucky to have access to so many rich marine resources that feed us, sustain us, and bring us happiness,” Gavenus wrote in an email. 

“The thing that is striking to me about this harvest closure is that it highlights how little we really know about the natural history of individual species and then how they are connected in complex ecosystems. … In order to make the best management decisions, we need to better understand the science of these animals, the larger ecological system, and how human harvest might affect that,” she said. 

Lindsay Olsen is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.