Cook Inlet clams up for grabs

A remote beach on the west side of Cook Inlet has seen an uptick in traffic as clammers hitch rides with charter boat captains or hop on small planes to find a stretch of beach where many say the razor clams are beyond comparison to any found on the Kenai Peninsula.

The Polly Creek beach, near Tuxedni Bay and the Crescent River, is so rarely used by sport and personal-use fishermen that Alaska’s Board of Fisheries has yet to establish a limit on the number of clams that a person can dig up in the area.

However, a crash in razor clam population on the east side of Cook Inlet prompted Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers to restrict and ultimately close 50 miles of Kenai Peninsula beaches. 

The closures also prompted a Ninilchik man to ask the board to consider setting a limit of 60 clams per day with up to 120 clams in possession for the inlet’s west side beaches.

The board considered that proposal and others, which would have further restricted the ailing east side beaches, during its statewide dungeness, shrimp and shellfish meeting in Anchorage last week. 

While several fish and game advisory committee members voted or testified in favor of restrictions on both beaches, the board ultimately decided to take no action on any of the proposals, in effect, leaving management of the east side beaches up to Fish and Game biologists and the west Cook Inlet beach an unlimited source of clams for those who can reach it.

It was surprising news for Joan Smart, whose family charter operation — J&J Smart Charters — saw a sharp increase the number of people who wanted to book clamming trips after Fish and Game began restricting the east side beaches in 2013.

“They really should, at some point, put a limit on how many you can get,” Smart said. “It’s going to get to the point that it is pretty popular over there.”

And for good reason.

“There are nice big clams over there and lots of them. But how long that can last, I don’t know before it gets to the point where (the west side beach) looks like where we are at on the east side,” Smart said.

So far, her charter operation, based out of Ninilchik, has a Polly Creek clamming trip booked in the middle of June and another in August for the 2015 season.

“Last year, I think every negative tide that we had each month, we had a trip going over,” she said.

Rusty Roessler, the general manager of the sole commercial clamming operation approved for the west shores of the inlet, told the board members that he had seen increased boat and plane traffic in the Polly Creek area where his company operates. Pacific Alaska Shellfish, a subsidiary of Pacific Seafood, has been operating there for about 30 years.

“We had nothing to do with this proposal, but I think you’ve seen what has happened on the east side,” he said.

But critics of the proposal point to Roessler’s successful commercial operation, which pulls an average of 390,000 pounds of clam a year out of the same nine miles of beach, as proof both that the beach can sustain a high level of harvest and at levels the sport fishery will likely not reach.

Art Charles, of Ninilchik-based Reel ’Em Inn Cook Inlet Charters, said he has been taking clammers to Polly Creek and another nearby clamming beach south of Tutka Bay, for several years.

Charles said he’d be hard-pressed to believe that a fishery which allows charter boats to beach and offload clammers for a few hours at a time — tide and weather dependent — about 15 times a year, could damage a robust clamming beach.

“Definitely last season I did see more boats over there than I have in the past,” he said. “But not everybody is going to go over there. It requires special skills for the captain. You’ve got to ground your boat, so you’re on dry land in a remote area. If somebody has a heart attack or some kind of medical condition, you’ve got to be able to take care of that. You’re not just on the water anymore, you’re on dry land.”

In addition, the screaming Cook Inlet tides, wind and cross-currents keep most people away, he said. Charles estimates that about 85 percent of his clients are Alaskans willing to pay the $175 ticket price to reach a beach where they can harvest all of the clams they’ll need for the year in one trip.

“(We’re) not impacting the fishery a lot,” he said.

Board of Fisheries members agreed with the sentiment.

“It’s not on the road system,” said board member Sue Jeffrey from Kodiak. “There’s risk involved in crossing strong currents, (and) planes are expensive.”

While Charles doesn’t believe the state should set limits on the number of clams that can be harvested at the Polly Creek beach, he does think that someone should be keeping track of the clam population.

“They’re not requiring any logbooks to be filled out,” he said. “They’re dealing with blue sky because they don’t know the numbers. I require a logbook to be filled out for every trip. I put down there that it was Polly Creek, explain that I’m digging razor clams with these clients and send it in just like I would any logbook page.”

He also worries that families and personal-use fishermen will see that the east side beaches are closed and try to reach the west side.

“I’m not concerned that we’re harvesting too many clams. When they close the beach, then you’re out of options, what it does is it kind of pushes the individual with the 18-foot (boat) … over there. They don’t realize what Cook Inlet can do. A lot of things can happen,” he said. “You need a good, solid boat. You need a good captain. It’s not a game over there. You really have to understand how the tides work and how current work.”

Rashah McChesney is the city editor for the Peninsula Clarion.