Do you dig it? Ninilchik beaches to see limited razor clam opener this summer

a bucket of clams on the beach
Cook Inlet razor clams await processing after being dug out of the sand. (Jenny Neyman/KDLL)

Sport and personal-use harvest of razor clams will open this summer on the east side of Cook Inlet for the first time since 2015.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced a limited opening for razor clams July 1-4 on east-side Cook Inlet beaches from three miles north of Ninilchik south to the tip of the Homer Spit.

“I’m excited that everybody gets a chance to go clamming,” said Mike Booz, lower Cook Inlet area management biologist for Fish and Game. “Unlike other sport fisheries that we have here, there’s no real catch-and-release opportunity for razor clams. And so people haven’t really had a chance to be out on the beach just to dig and see what these clams are like after this long closure period.”

East-side razor clam populations have struggled over the last decade. A management plan adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries in 2022 allows for a limited harvest opportunity when adult clam abundance meets or exceeds 50 percent of historical average abundance.

Fish and Game says clam populations at Clam Gulch don’t meet that threshold this year. Populations in the Ninilchik area do. But even though adult clam abundance has improved around Ninilchik, Fish and Game says the 2023 juvenile abundance is the lowest since 2013. Which means there probably won’t be an opening next year.

“This is likely to be the way the fishery goes moving forward that we have a small harvest opportunity in one year and then it might go back to being closed for a couple of years and the numbers build back up and we have another small fishery opportunity,” Booz said.

A decade ago, clamming was a big tourism draw to Ninilchik and Clam Gulch. Debbie Cary has owned the Inlet View Lodge in Ninilchik for over 30 years and remembers when the long summer clamming season and high harvest limits meant a consistent boost in business. But she’s not thrilled about this year’s condensed opener, especially if it sets back recovery of the clam population.

“I’d like to see it as a full season because that way we would be ready, prepared and staffed for it,” Cary said. “I believe that two of the three restaurants in town are usually closed on two of the days that they have this opening scheduled for, so now we’re trying to scramble and figure out, ‘OK, do we open? Is it going to be worth it? Are people going to show up? And, so, without that predictability, that aspect is going to be very difficult for us.”

Without clamming, Ninilchik has found other ways to draw visitors to the community. One of those events is a beach horse race, part of the Ninilchik Rodeo. That was planned for July 2 on a stretch of beach that will now be open to clamming. Kenai Peninsula Fair Coordinator Lara McGinnis says they’re hoping to work with Alaska State Parks to try and move the race, rather than cancel it.

“When something goes away different events go in and take their place. So clamming died and Ninilchik had to come up with other creative ways to get people there because we’re a tourism-driven community. So we’re going to have to figure out how to make it all work together now,” McGinnis said.

Greg Encelewski is president of the Ninilchik Traditional Council and Ninilchik Natives Association and a member of the Federal Subsistence Board’s Southcentral Regional Advisory Council. He wants to see the clams left alone until the population is higher.

“All of our members so far are just disgusted with the opening. We feel that it’s way too soon,” Encelewski said. “The clams have not recovered. The impact is going to be tremendous on the beaches whether they think so or not. We’re going to have just about everyone in Anchorage down here to dig that weekend on the Fourth of July. And I think that you start multiplying the numbers and the families, it’s going to really impact them.”

Booz says the opening is designed to keep harvest within the management plan objective of no more than 10 percent of adult abundance on any given beach. Beyond only being open for four days, the bag and possession limit is 15 clams per person, per day — meaning you can’t go back for more clams if you still have a previous day’s harvest with you. And you must harvest the first 15 clams dug, no matter the size.

“The process of digging them tends to have some shell damage or breakage and those clams typically don’t survive,” Booz said. “And so, yeah, everyone’s required to keep all the clams that they dig.”

Booz says Fish and Game will monitor the fishery at the primary beach access sites in Ninilchik, Deep Creek and Whiskey Gulch to count how many people are participating and how many clams are harvested. If harvest looks like it will exceed the 10 percent threshold, the department is prepared to shut it down early.

“If we see ungodly number of people and on the first day and the harvest seems like it’s going to exceed that 10 percent harvest rate then, yeah, we, we do have our emergency order authority to close it again, if needed,” Booz said.

More information on the opening is available

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