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East Cook Inlet clamdiggers could see limited harvest

Closures on the east side of Cook Inlet have sent charter operators over to the west side for the last several years. (Photo by: Bottom Line Charters)
Closures on the east side of Cook Inlet have sent charter operators over to the west side for the last several years. (Photo by: Bottom Line Charters)

The beaches on the east side of Cook Inlet once bustled with razor clams.

But since a crash in the clam population a decade ago, razor clam abundance in that part of the inlet has stayed low. And the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has kept the beaches closed to digging by emergency order since 2015.

That could change this May. The Alaska Board of Fisheries just approved a management plan from Fish and Game that would open the beaches back to personal and sport-use clamming if clam abundance reaches a certain threshold.

Mike Booz, the Lower Cook Inlet sportfish area manager for Fish and Game, said the idea is that a limited harvest won’t impact the stock’s ability to recover going forward. The plan divides the beach into two management areas: Clam Gulch and Ninilchik. Booz said his department plans on wrapping clam surveys by mid-May and will then announce whether the beaches are open to clamming through October.

Mike Booz: Razor clam abundances at both Clam Gulch and Ninilchik in the last few years have improved from what they were in 2015 when we first closed the fishery by emergency order.

Last year at Clam Gulch was probably some of the best abundances that we've seen for adult-sized razor clams since the closure, and Ninilchik is fluctuated up and down on those beaches a little bit but still improved from where we were at the first closure. The abundances in the last three years at both beaches have been somewhere between 40 to 60 percent of their historical average.

KDLL: How do the new policies we're seeing from the Board of Fish reflect those changes, those small improvements?

MB: Well, with the board adopting a management plan for east Cook Inlet, I think that's recognizing that this stock hasn't recovered to historical levels of productivity that we've seen in the past. But it has improved to a point to potentially provide a small, more limited harvest opportunity.

KDLL: So what are going to be the key factors to determine whether that fishery will open in a limited capacity?

MB: Within the management plan, it requires us to assess the abundance of both Clam Gulch and Ninilchik annually. And so we get started with the minus tides in April this year. We're going to have to stretch into May because there's not enough extreme minus tides to sample out at the end of the beach.

So, yeah. The first step towards the plan is just to identifying what the abundances are on the beach right now and if they're sufficient or not to meet the threshold identified in the management plan to open the fishery. And that threshold is 50 percent of the historical average abundance.