Razor clams from Alaska are a rare delicacy and are snapped up by restaurants on the West Coast and Canada.
The giant clams, which can reach more than 10 inches, are harvested by hand from a single 10-mile stretch of beach on the west side of Cook Inlet at the southwest corner of Polly Creek. The fishery, which opens in May and can run into August, is the only commercial razor clam fishery in Alaska.
The diggers are allowed to take 350,000 to 400,000 pounds of clams in the shell this year and are paid 65 to 75 cents per pound.
“About half of that is clam meat. Any broken clams go to the pet food market,” said Pat Shields, regional manager at Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
Coolers filled with whole clams are flown four to six times a day from the beach to the Pacific Alaska Shellfish plant in Nikiski, where they are immediately processed and sent to waiting markets.
“The processors also get 60 to 70 cents a pound to shuck them. Then they are vacuum packed and sent fresh or frozen to a lot of markets. It’s a really good product,” Shields added.
Nearly all of the clam diggers out on the Cook Inlet flats are from out of state.
“Most of the diggers are Hispanic from California,” Shields said. “It’s such hard work that we have a hard time finding local folks to participate.”
“You put this big bag on your belt, and you’re stooped over for hours at a time,” Shields explained. “Most of them use their hands or a very small spade. They dump them into a bucket, and the clams get sorted in coolers.”
Other Cook Inlet beaches have been closed to clam digging since 2014 after a drop off in the stocks. More recently state fishery biologists have found encouraging signs of juvenile razors, signaling a potential rebound.