Not many years ago, if you wanted razor clams, you simply drove to the beach. Clams were plentiful, the digging was easy, and getting a limit of 60 was a cinch. No more. When I went last summer, I found only one small clam. On the way home, I had to buy a package of frozen clams so I could make chowder.
Earlier this week, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) announced by Emergency Order (EO) that, effective Mar. 1, 2015, the beach from the mouth of the Kenai River to the southernmost tip of the Homer Spit will be closed to the taking of all clam species for the remainder of the year.
In 2014, the abundance of mature sized razor clams found at Clam Gulch and Ninilchik South was 89 and 82 percent, respectively, below the 1991-2012 average. From 2009 to 2014, the harvest was comprised of fewer age classes, and the younger age classes have become predominant. In other words, most clams found now are small ones. The cause of the decline in the number of large clams is unknown. Poor spawning success, poor settling success or both are possibilities. The only thing the state can do is to stop all harvest until the species recovers.
This closure of what once was one of the best places on earth to dig razor clams closely follows the announcement of a closure of what once was one of the best places to catch a king salmon. On Feb. 19, ADF&G announced by EO that the Kenai River would be closed to fishing for king salmon — including catch-and-release — from May 1 to June 30, just as it was closed in 2014.
To ensure adequate escapement of early-run kings into the river, closing the river to all fishing is the right thing to do. The optimal escapement goal is 5,300 to 9,000 kings. The pre-season forecast for this year’s run is only 5,265. If this forecast is realized, the 2015 run will rank as the next to the poorest return in the past 30 years. The poorest return was in 2014. According to the EO, Kenai River king salmon stocks are experiencing a period of low productivity and, since 2009, below average run strength, a trend anticipated to continue this year.
The cause of this low productivity, like that of the razor clams, is unknown. However, unlike the closure of all razor clam harvest for the entire year, the state is stopping the the harvest of Kenai River kings only in May and June, then lets it begin on July 1.
If the run is in trouble, why allow a harvest at all?
Well, the short answer is to spread conservation efforts equally between sport and commercial fisheries. To give the long answer, I’d have to try to explain the various convoluted salmon management plans, and how fisheries managers use and misuse them, and I have neither the desire nor the ability to try to do that in this column. However, here’s my opinion: The state continues to allow the harvest of Kenai River king salmon despite the dangerously low spawning escapements of recent years because the sport-fishing industry has become such an aggressive force in the fish wars.
Hundreds of fishing guides, lodge owners, B & B owners, retail stores and other business owners now have a financial stake in whether or not king salmon fishing is allowed on the Kenai. Dependence upon the king salmon portion of the tourism pie has spread throughout our communities, even to city, borough and state governments. As a result, intense political pressure is applied to everyone who has a hand in regulating our fisheries, from local fish and game advisory committees, to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, to ADF&G, to the Legislature and to the Governor. Woe be unto anyone who would try to limit the number of Kenai River guides, close the Kenai to the harvest of kings in July, allow east-side set netters to fish when they might net a king, or to keep set netters from fishing when they could be catching other species.
I firmly believe that when a species is as much at risk as king salmon are now, none should be harvested. If that means closing the rivers and keeping the east-side set nets out the water, so be it.
After a dismal return of early-run kings last year, ADF&G opened the Kenai to harvest on July 1. In the first five days of July, only 838 kings came into the river. These fish, as well as any early-run fish that were trying to spawn in the lower river, were subjected to 19 days of harvest before managers finally closed the river. Even after they knew the run was in trouble, they continued to allow catch-and-release of kings. Finally, on July 26, they closed the Kenai to all fishing for kings for the last five days of the season. At the same time, they allowed east-side set netters to fish, thus further reducing the number of kings that escaped to spawn.
As a result of these “conservation” measures, the Kenai River ended up with the poorest return of king salmon on record.
This year, if the dismal king salmon forecast comes to pass for the Kenai, I hope fishery managers do the right thing. All fisheries should be shut down until the runs recover.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.