Razor clam calamity: Tides, winds wash thousands of clams up on beach

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2010

In the summer on a good minus tide, people flock to the Ninilchik beach by the hundreds to gather succulent razor clams. As anyone who has ever tried to harvest clams knows, digging clams can be back-breaking, finger-aching work -- unless nature does the job for you.

Photo By Jamie Mckellar
Photo By Jamie Mckellar
Thousands of clams line the Ninilchik beach following a recent storm.

Last week, it was easy pickings on the Ninilchik beach. Clams could be had by the bucketful. A winter storm tossed up hundreds of clams, thousands of clams, tens of thousands of clams on an 8-mile stretch of the Ninilchik beach. Photos taken by University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Jamie McKellar shows rows of clams pushed up on the high-tide wrack line thicker than kelp.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game area biologist Nicky Szarzi said biologists estimated 2,700 clams in one 70-yard-by-30-yard patch.

The first Mae Demidoff, a longtime Ninilchik resident, heard razor clams had washed up on the beach was the morning of Nov. 17, when a friend showed up on her doorstep with a bucket of clams as a gift. Although Demidoff, who grew up in Ninilchik, had never heard of clams making themselves so easily available, she wasn't about to turn down the present.

"They were muddy so I washed them and made a big pot of soup and we had a feast," said Demidoff.

A seasoned clammer, Demidoff said the clam necks were not stretched out and the shells were sealed tight, indicating they were fresh.

"They were beautiful," said Demidoff. "I would know if something was rotten. These were perfectly fine."

Later in the day, a second bucket of clams arrived on Demidoff's doorstep. They had less sand on them and were easier to clean, but appeared as fresh and healthy as the earlier delivery. That batch went into the freezer.

Szarzi said she thinks a high westerly wind and large tides combined with an unusual number of 2-year-old clams caused the clam event. In 2008, the Ninilchik clam beaches had what scientists call a high recruitment class -- a large burst in that year's population of newborn clams, or gametes. Female clams can lay up to 118 million eggs. Most of the clams found in last week's event were 2-year-olds.

"It's not unusual. It's happened in the past," Szarzi said. "It's a pretty large event this time."

Although she has heard recent storms blamed for the unprecedented clam delivery, Demidoff said storms are not new to the area.

"One of the reasons I think it happened is because our winters are so mild and the beaches are soft and the big storm just undermined them and dug them up," she said.

In the 10 years since Jim and Melody Burton moved to the Ninilchik area, they haven't seen anything like the thousands of clams that piled up along the shoreline last week.

"The clams die out, that's true, but we've never heard of anything like this before," said Melody Burton. "We're wondering if the storm's waves were so big they pushed them out."

Szarzi said younger clams aren't as strong as older, bigger clams and don't have the longer necks that help big clams dig deeper. In winter clams get sluggish and wouldn't be able to get a good purchase in soggy sand. The young clams would have floated to the surface, been tumbled around and tossed up on the beach.

Razor clams have strong recruitment classes every 5 to 7 years, Szarzi said. How many survived the mass die off remains to be seen.

"We'll see how many made it," she said.

Biologists hadn't done any pathology tests by Tuesday to see if something else caused the mass wash up of clams. Live clams are needed to test for pathology, but biologists couldn't find any. Szarzi said scientists were going to see if frozen clams would work. The Ninilchik beach isn't tested for paralytic shellfish poisoning, and Fish and Game always tells people they eat clams from untested beaches at their own risk.

When Demidoff was cautioned about cooking them and told samples had been sent to a biologist for testing, she said, "Too late. We already ate some."

Edna Steik, another longtime Ninilchik resident, said she can't remember anything like this happening before.

"We've had bigger storms than this," said Steik. "This is weird."

Szarzi said the clam wash-up was seen on the Ninilchik beach from Leman's to north of Deep Creek. Biologists also looked for clams at Clam Gulch, but no washed-up clams in large numbers were seen there.

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