Summer 2018 will be the fourth year in a row with no clamming on Cook Inlet’s east side beaches.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the closure on Friday, which stretches from the tip of the Homer Spit to the Kenai River mouth. The closure begins Jan. 1 at 12:01 a.m. and will continue through the end of the year.
Researchers will continue investigating the high mortality and low recruitment that have kept the number of mature clams on the Ninilchik and Clam Gulch beaches “at historically low levels” since 2014, according to the announcement.
Sportfishermen used to be able to go down each year and collect buckets full of clams along the beaches from the Kenai River all the way to Homer. The public and Fish and Game managers started to see a decline in the early 2010s, hitting critically low levels in 2013 and leading to the institution of bag limits and eventually a complete closure.
A 2015 Fish and Game survey found that Ninilchik clam abundance was 80 percent less than the previous 22-year average, and Clam Gulch clams numbers were 94 percent less abundant than the 10-year average.
“Cause of the decline in razor clam abundance remains unknown but may include a combination of heavy surf, habitat changes, environmental stressors and predation,” the Fish and Game announcement states.
Clam numbers have been declining on both sides of the population equation: researchers have seen both high mortality and low recruitment, a measure of how many free-floating clam larvae settle into the sand to grow into mature adults. Though mortality remains high, Fish and Game surveys have seen an increase in recruitment among young clams, said Mike Booz, a fisheries biologist with Fish and Game’s Division of Sportfish in Homer.
Fish and Game does regular dig surveys for razor clams on both the east and west sides of Cook Inlet. On the west side, where there are few residents and access is by boat or small float plane only, the razor clam populations are doing well, Booz said. The commercial fishery for razor clams at Polly Creek, which is done entirely by hand digging, has been steady for years and can harvest up to 350,000–400,000 pounds annually.
Booz said the Fish and Game surveys on the west side have turned up good size and age assemblages of razor clams. The east side surveys have shown large numbers of young clams in the last year or two, but the future of a fishery depends on whether those clams survive.
“We obviously have very sufficient numbers of juvenile clams on on these beaches right now that in a few years, if they survive at historical rates, there would be good numbers to support the fishery,” he said. “What it comes down to to support the fishery is that the clams that are there now need to survive and we need to continue to get new clams to the beach in recruitment. Each year’s going to kind of dictate it.”
Winter storms, predation and changing water conditions in the ocean can contribute to tougher conditions for young clams, though it’s not entirely clear what caused the sharp decline in the number of Cook Inlet east side clams. Fish and Game researchers will gather more information in their 2018 surveys to see how the juveniles are surviving.
Those surveys will impact any future decisions on whether a sportfishery can open on the east side beaches, Booz said.
“The numbers of clams on the beaches right now are good,” he said. “It’s just they’re all really small. It would be like looking at all the salmon parr in the hatchery and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, there are going to be so many salmon in three years’ … I think we’re going to have more refined information after 2018 as to how things look.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.