Commercial clam diggers are out on the flats on the west side of Cook Inlet in a fishery that can run from May into early August. It is the only razor clam fishery in Alaska.

“It’s limited to 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of clams in the shell and usually 45 to 50 percent is the recovery rate. Half of that is clam meat. Any broken clams go to the bait market.

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Pat Shields is regional manager at the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

“They harvest those over on the west side of Cook Inlet on the southwest corner of Polly Creek. The diggers get 65 to 70 cents a pound. They fly them in four to six flights a day to a plant in Nikiski and then the processors there also get between 60-70 cents a pound to shuck them.  Then they are vacuum packed and sent to a lot of markets in California up the west coast to Canada and it’s a very good product.

Pacific Alaska Shellfish is the only plant in the state handling razor clams, which can grow to 10 inches and fetch up to nearly $18 a pound at retail.

Two decades ago sport and commercial clammers harvested more than a million pounds but the population collapsed and has kept five beaches on the east side closed since 2014.

Shields says there are many theories for the clam crash.  One is due to a bad storm several years ago that left rows of dead clams for several miles.

The state continues to closely monitor stocks on both the east and west side beaches and there are signs of recovery.

For the west side fishery, Shields says nearly all clam diggers are from out of state.

“One of the interesting things is Most of the diggers are Hispanic from California. They have tried to entice local people – it’s such hard work that we have a hard time finding local folks to participate.”

Shields describes the back breaking process –

“You put this bag in front of you on your belt and you’re stooped over all day. Most of them don’t use a shovel – they use their hands or a very small spade and they are in that bent over mode for many hours at a time filling the bag with clams and then they dump them into a bucket and the clams get sorted in coolers. The plant flies a plane over and lands on the sand, four to six trips a day.”