Editor’s note: This is part two of a story about the history of clamming on the Kenai Peninsula. Last week’s story looked at the early record of clamming in the area, dating back to Capt. Cook’s exploration of the inlet. This week looks at clamming harvest through the years.
By Brent Johnson
For the Redoubt Reporter
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Clam Gulch is a local name reported about 1911. So it seems that clams must have been important to the area at least 100 years ago. Those clams probably had few visitors until after the Sterling Highway was built past Clam Gulch, in 1949.
Interesting clam news comes to us from the pages of a pioneer’s diary. Pete Jensen was a fox farmer turned set-netter who built next to the Kasilof River in about 1920. His June 7, 1953, entry states, “Harry here with mail and some clams.”
The neighbor with the clams was Harry Gerberg, who homesteaded next to Jensen in 1937.
A July 26, 1956, entry says, “ARC (Alaska Road Commission) working on road to the beach at Clam Gulch.” While that roadwork might have been for commercial fishing purposes, it must have also provided better access to the clam beach.
On Feb. 19, 1957, Jensen reports, “Clear, +6 (degrees F). Fine warm day. Down Clam Gulch digging clams.” Holy buckets! Clams wouldn’t be the only critters with an “icicle” in that weather.
It seems that the bottom fell out of the clam beds in 1957. On March 18, 1957, Jensen writes, “Partly cloudy +34. … At Clam Gulch digging clams. Archie along. Lots of diggers, not many clams.”
His companion was 1946 Cohoe homesteader Archie Ramsell. On July 2, 1958, Jensen writes, “At Clam Gulch digging clams. No clams.”
Perhaps it was the decline mentioned by Jensen, coupled with a 1958 die-off at Cordova, that led to closing east-side Cook Inlet beaches to commercial clamming operators in 1959. This was not a knee-jerk action by a new state zealous for conservation. The federal government retained fish and game management in Alaska until 1960. And the clam population did rebound. Below are the annual sport harvest clam numbers for Cook Inlet east-side beaches:
2012 — Not yet released
For 24 years, from 1974 to 1997, the annual east-side sport harvest was more than 800,000 clams. That duration indicates that the clam population was sustainable even during such high harvests. West-side clams are still harvested commercially and haven’t seemed to suffer from the same downturn. There, the commercial harvest rebounded in the late 1970s to reach almost 450,000 in 1981. Twenty-nine of the next 30 annual harvests were between 200,000 and 450,000. In 1982, it was 460,000, and in 2011 it was 189,000. In 2012, the harvest was 307,409. Keep in mind, sport digging also occurs on the west side in great numbers.
The Cook Inlet daily sport bag limit for razor clams was 60 from 1962 until 2000, when it was lowered to 45 to discourage waste. In 2003, the bag limit returned to 60, and this spring was dropped to 25. Over the years, numerous citations have been issued to diggers who exceeded the bag limit.
In November 2010, a storm washed up thousands of clams on the beach near Ninilchik, and a similar event at Clam Gulch happened a couple years earlier. Were these just freak storms, or did some health issue contribute? Storms are common, but old-timers don’t remember them affecting clams like this.
The first scientific report of Pacific razor clams came from early exploration of the inlet, mentioned by George Dixon, Capt. Cook’s armorer during the 1778 discovery of Cook Inlet. He returned eight years later as captain of the Queen Charlotte on a trading expedition led by Capt. Portlock. On July 19, 1786, the two-ship trading party reached Cook Inlet, and the following day they anchored in the vicinity of present-day Port Graham, which they named “Graham’s Harbor.” Dixon’s journal makes mention of the crew digging clams onshore.
But clams are not found there today. So, what happened to them?
A brief description of clam reproduction might be helpful. Male and female clams each release hundreds of thousands to millions of gametes. Some of them unite to form zygotes and, progressively, veligers. After floating around for two or three weeks, the young clams settle to the bottom and, if lucky, land in sand. It is not known if they find their way back to the same sand from which they came.
An increase in sea otters has been suggested as a problem for clams and is certainly impacting some clams now. But sea otters declined near Port Graham after Dixon’s visit. The Russians had just established themselves at Nanwalek in 1786 and made the Natives increase sea otter hunting until the otters were nearly gone.
The weather could also be a factor, except Dixon’s men saw snow in July. The weather has overall warmed since then, but razor clams exist as far south as California. The Clam Gulch and Polly Creek beaches hold the farthest-north Pacific razor clam populations. These clams are documented to grow slower than clams even as close as Cordova.
If I’m right about Dixon’s clam coming from Port Graham, their demise could very well have stemmed from unregulated digging during the Russian occupation.
Clams can be transplanted, and if biologists found a suitable beach near Port Graham today, it would be interesting to see if they could be re-established. They would, in effect, have their place back in history.
Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, is a former president of the Kenai Peninsula Historical Association.