Alaskans who make an annual habit of digging for razor clams on the Kenai Peninsula may have noticed something odd over the last few years – there just doesn’t seem to be as many clams on the beaches as there used to be. Scientists have also noticed the trend.
Homer Fish and Game biologist Carol Kirkvliet has been studying razor clams all along the eastern side of Cook Inlet for many years. That research includes collecting and examining samples of clams, and performing aerial surveys to count how many people are going clamming every year and where they are finding success.
In the fall of 2010, it was discovered that a large winter storm had caused a major die-off of the razor clam population on the popular clamming beaches around Ninilchik.
Kirkvliet says that since that time, Fish and Game has been working with Alaska Pacific University Professor Brad Harris and his students to study the clams more closely. She says the initial study showed that the abundance of razor clams was still quite high following the storm but the clams that were left were smaller and only represented one age class.
The lifespan of razor clams is about five to eight years but they can sometimes live as long as 14 years.
In the second year of their study – between 2011 and 2012 – Harris and his students discovered that the Ninilchik-area clam population had dropped by as much as 50 percent.
Harris says there is no "smoking gun" and there is still much that is not known about lives of razor clams, for instance questions like how long do clams stay at sea before attempting to take root in the beach sand, how are clams located on different beaches related to one another and how much affect do local clammers have on the overall population.
"We're trying to track this population and ... looking at what these potential mechanisms might be," said Harris. "But really, we're just scratching the surface."
Harris says some possible answers to the razor clam decline include climactic changes in Cook Inlet and an increase in the population of sea otters – but he stresses that right now, scientists do not have enough information to make a definite determination.
Since Harris and his students have only been working the Ninilchik beaches for the last three years, Kirkvliet agrees that it’s too early to tell what might be causing the population decline in razor clams.
"It's hard to say if it's unusual or not, " said Kirkvliet. "We're still looking at the data to ... see what it all means."
The good news is that, thanks to the APU study, scientists are getting the best data they’ve ever had about the lives of razor clams in the Ninilchik area.
Fish and Game hasn’t taken management action on the razor clam fishery in the last few years but Kirkvliet says that could change soon.
"We're discussing what actions we may take," she said.
Kirkvliet says that if any action is taken this year, it would likely happen before the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
If you’ve never been clam-digging before, you’re in for some fun yet inexpensive entertainment and scientists say there are still plenty of razor clams to harvest. The season for the clams is year-round and the bag limit is 60 clams per day.
Kirkvliet says you want to look for the long flat beaches that make the Ninilchik area a prime spot – and you’ll want to check your tide book and look for a low tide of two feet or less.