Juvenile clams boom on east side

Though the personal use razor clam fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet will remain closed for 2017, a boom in young clams may mean the population is recovering.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order Wednesday closing the personal use clam fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet for the fourth year in a row. The beaches will remain closed between the mouth of the Kenai River to the southernmost tip of the Homer Spit for the harvest of any kind of clam, according to the emergency order.

The razor clam population on the east side has declined on the Ninilchik beaches, where the department regularly does surveys, in the past several years. Between 2011 and 2015, the population on the south Ninilchik beach fell from approximately 1.7 million to 103,142, and on the north beach from 1.2 million to 76,696, according to population abundance estimates provided to the Board of Fisheries during the November 2016 Lower Cook Inlet regulatory meeting. The numbers are similar on the Clam Gulch beaches — between 2011 and 2015, the north beach declined from about 1.8 million to 497,601 and the south beach fell from about 1.3 million to 427,569, according to the surveys.

However, the surveys in 2016 showed marked improvement among juvenile-size clams, according to the emergency order. Surveyors spotted nearly 850,000 age-1 razor clams on the Ninilchik South beach, and 2.5 million juvenile razor clams on the Clam Gulch north beach, according to the emergency order. The north Ninilchik beach and the south Clam Gulch beach were not surveyed in 2016, according to the abundance estimate tables.

“The above average recruitment signals that the population may be beginning to rebound,” the emergency order states. “These beach sections will again be surveyed in 2017 so recruitment trends of juvenile size razor clams and natural mortality trends of juvenile and mature size razor clams can be assessed.”

Mature razor clam abundance is still at an all-time low, according to the emergency order. In Cook Inlet, other than on the east side, there are no size restrictions or limits on the number of razor clams that can be harvested, according to the 2016 sportfisheries regulatory summary booklet.

Over the years, razor clam harvests increased as well, reaching a peak in 1994, when 820,375 clams were harvested, according to data provided to the Board of Fisheries by Fish and Game for the Lower Cook Inlet meeting. However, after that, harvests decreased relatively steadily, reaching a low of 61,598 before Fish and Game closed the Ninilchik beaches to harvest by emergency order in 2014.

The uptick in juvenile clams is promising, said Carol Kerkvliet, the area management biologist for the Division of Sportfisheries in Homer.

“It is encouraging that we are seeing good recruitment of juvenile size clams to the beach,” she said.

Fish and Game has still not identified a driving factor for the decline in population, but has documented high natural mortality for mature-size razor clams on the east side, according to the emergency order. Kerkvliet said it’s possible that juvenile clams have had poor settling success as well.

The razor clam population has pitched up and down before on the east side, according to the historical survey data. In 1990, the total populations on the south Ninilchik and Clam Gulch beaches was about 601,586, and on the north beaches was about 1.6 million. By 1998, the south beaches had fallen to 422,757, and the north beaches has fallen to 987,996, but both sections had climbed again by 2011, when they began to decline again.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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