Grad student study focused on revival of razor clams

The fishing boom in Cordova didn’t revolve just around salmon. Clamming began in the mid-teens with the opening of the Lighthouse Canning and Packing Co. quickly to be followed by G.P. Halferty who completed a two-line cannery in 1916. Together these plants heralded the commencement of the Alaska razor clam industry. In 1916, 35 diggers dug nearly half a million pounds of clams and in the following year which was the peak for the industry 135 diggers unburied three and a half million pounds of razor clams. The heavy exploitation of Cordova’s beaches led to the nickname of “Razor Clam Capitol of the World” and the distinction of generating over half the clam pack produced for the entire United States. This photo came from the archives and collections of the Cordova Historical Society.

A graduate student intent on helping to revive the razor clam biomass that she grew up harvesting on the Kenai Peninsula is studying clam larvae she spawned in a Seward laboratory to see how ocean acidification affects this shellfish.

“My family and many others have a vested interest in bringing this species back,” said Marina Washburn, who is working on her master’s degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Her work is funded through Alaska Sea Grant.

The razor clam harvest was ended by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 2015 because of severe population declines and hasn’t opened since.

Washburn’s research is based out of Seward, where she was able to successfully spawn razor clams in the laboratory of the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery.

“We weren’t sure it was possible to spawn razor clams,” she said. “My first attempt failed. When they finally hatched, I felt I could celebrate.”

UAF researchers note that razor clams, once harvested commercially, recreationally and for subsistence, have virtually disappeared on the eastern shores of Cook Inlet, and clam populations in Southcentral Alaska overall have been in decline since the late 1990s. Washburn’s research focuses on testing the resiliency or susceptibility of these clams to ocean acidification.

She is using a method pioneered by Amanda Kelley, a marine biology professor and ocean acidification expert at the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

Kelley had developed a protocol for exposing cockles and littlenecks to varying ocean acidity conditions that mimic those in the ocean today and what is anticipated in the future.

“We’re just at the very, very beginning point of understanding how Alaska species are going to respond to OA, and more broadly, ocean change,” Kelly said.