Emilie Springer: The Rise and Fall of Cook Inlet Razor Clams

Mar 29, 2021

Central Alaska Razor Clams
     Razor clams in southcentral Alaska are another prolific historic sport and commercial seafood that locals will recall, unavailable for harvest now.  For sport fishing, beaches along the entire Kenai Peninsula were abundant harvest sites. The Clam Gulch State Recreation Area, located at mile 117.5 on the Sterling Highway, was the most popular spot for diggers.  An Alaska Department of Fish and Game film from 1974 reports that “during peak weekends hundreds of cars and campers park along the road up to a mile and a half from the beach access road.  Up to 3600 diggers have been counted here and 1600 diggers have harvested as many as 41,000 clams in one day.”  The speaker notes in the film that, “diggers and harvest increase annually.”  It was a crowded, active, busy, social scene at a campground that is now mostly quiet and empty.

     “It’s amazing to think how popular the fishery was!  As soon as the road was put into the Kenai Peninsula, clamming was one of the primary sport industries people came to for harvest,” said Mike Booz area manager in the Homer Alaska Department of Fish and Game office.  Digging was available from access roads at many locations from Kenai South including Kasilof, Ninilchik, Deep Creek, Whiskey Gulch and others.

     Mike shared the link for this film with me after I saw biological presentations on current razor clam population status (not currently supporting diggers or harvest) during the Kachemak Bay Science Conference, “Conversations in Conservation,” March 15-18.  What caught my attention in his presentation was an academic biological paper studying clam beds in the Cordova area and near Chisik Island on the west side of Cook Inlet published in 1930.  What I wanted to know was what prompted the early composition? Who was visiting the territory of Alaska? What was bringing attention to Alaska clams? Booz says, “It was just the potential for commercial fisheries in razor clams.  There are very few stocks that have had that level of monitoring, especially for sport fish stocks.”  Now that the east side of Cook Inlet is exclusively sport, “it probably is one of the longest studied sport stocks in Alaska,” Booz says.

     There is a current commercial fishery on the west side of Cook Inlet. The fishery is prosecuted through commissioner’s permits and the contracted fishermen change frequently. The processing facility has been involved for a long time,” Booz explains.  The seafood company is based in Portland, Oregon.  They have a plant in Nikiski and have their property, cabins and gear to do all of their clamming, at Polly Creek.  During harvest, the clams are delivered by air every day from the west side to Nikiski and then south through the primary company and are delivered fresh to Pacific North West retail and restaurants.  
     From what I can determine, the supervising company, Pacific Seafood (https://www.pacificseafood.com), is a historic west coast operation with retail connections to Cook Inlet beginning in 1988. Booz explains that current management regulations are structured specifically for that operator, it’s not a typical permit-based commercial harvest.  “They have been prosecuting the fishery with a GHL (a guideline harvest limit) of 400,000 pounds/ annually with minimum product size of 3 ½ inches.  That’s a decent size clam,” says Booz.  Harvesters did not fish last year, 2020, because of COVID but in the most recent years they have been meeting that GHL.

     We talk briefly about the historic commercial clamming and what was happening farther south west down the coastline, past Cook Inlet in the Swikshak and Hallo Bay area (the specific beds referenced in the Weymouth paper).  For more information, I looked to several publications from the National Park Service.  The most thorough and specifically related to a razor clam commercial industry was Buried Dreams: The Rise and Fall of a Clam Cannery on the Katmai Coast. One of the main sources of material for this publication is from the scrapbook of Frida Nielsen, a Homer woman who worked at the Kukuk cannery as a “clam-clipper” in the summer of 1925.

     Harvest information referenced in another NPS book, Clemens and Norris’ Building in an Ashen Land, is some more commercial history: “The commercial production of clams began in southeastern Alaska; then, in 1916, the Cordova area witnessed the territory’s first large scale clam cannery.  Three years later the, the Surf Packing Company built a cannery at Snug Harbor on the southwest side of Chisik Island.”  The book continues to list an increase in clam canning operations in the general region up until 1963 when the Alaska Department of Health and Welfare prohibited commercial use of shellfish taken from Alaskan beaches.  The restriction remained in effect until 1970.  Once lifted, the industry rebounded until seasonal residential beach shacks, discarded vehicles and other debris lead to a State permit proviso limiting clam harvest to harvesters housed on vessels or rafts in effort to reduce shoreline waste.  
     After that commercial permits tapered dramatically.  Now, there is just the facility I mentioned earlier in the paper.  On the east side of the Inlet, beaches have not been open to sport harvest since 2015.