Two decades ago, digging razor clams on the Kenai Peninsula was one of the most popular outings with yields topping one million clams. But a collapsing population has kept five beaches closed since 2014 and the nearly 50,000 “digger days” from April through September are no more.
One clam company continues to thrive – Pacific Alaska Shellfish at Nikiski processes and ships out the big clams all over the country.
“It’s actually the largest razor clam plant in the world. And it is the only one in Alaska currently. The last several years there has been no commercial harvest in Oregon. I believe this will be the second year, and towards the end of last year they shut down also. They shut down because of PSP, paralytic shellfish poisoning that they had down there. And we’ve been able to keep going. So we’re the only ones currently producing razor clams in North America.”
Rusty Roessler was Alaska Pacific’s plant manager for 14 years until he retired last week. The company owns 10 acres on the west side of Cook Inlet where the clams are harvested, and untouched by PSP toxins, which has closed other Kenai Peninsula beaches.
“These clams are harvested one at a time with a shovel. It’s a very quick operation to dig down and to get it. And they’re paid by the pound. The average that we have is about 325 pounds per tide is what each individual guy will dig.”
The razors are kept chilled and then flown across the inlet to the plant for processing.
“We have our own 206 on tundra tires and our Alaskan Bush pilot who’s been with the company 30 years, he flies over there, lands on the beach, loads up the plane with clams in buckets. We have the only wash down-proof 206 in the world, that they can actually hose down the inside of the airplane, except of course the cockpit. And then fly back and lands at our strip over in Nikiski. And then taxies right up to the processing house.”)
The razor clams, which can grow to 10 inches, are then shipped out fresh or frozen to Alaska restaurants and retailers and beyond where they retail for up to $17.95 a pound.
No one is sure why the razor clams have crashed from other parts of the Kenai Peninsula. Fish and Game biologists speculate it’s from a combination of poor spawning and high natural die offs of mature clams.
There is a bright note: surveys last year found lots of juvenile razors signaling a potential razor clam rebound.
Thanks to the assist from KDLL in Kenai, where you can hear Randy Roessler’s reflections of nearly 40 years in Alaska seafood processing.