The U.S. Coast Guard found the bodies of two missing clam diggers Wednesday near a beach on the west side of Cook Inlet, raising the death toll to five after a commercial clamming skiff disappeared.
The men had arrived last week at a nearby camp where they are paid by the pound for digging razor clams along a six-mile stretch of shore southwest of Kalgin Island. The job is back-breaking work performed against a beautiful backdrop, one employee wrote, and is the only clamming operation of its kind on Cook Inlet, according to a state biologist.
A plant manager for Pacific Alaska Shellfish reported the crew's 20-foot aluminum skiff overdue at 3:46 p.m. Tuesday, according to the Coast Guard.
Co-workers found the body of one of the clam diggers washed ashore, the Coast Guard said. Searchers in a helicopter soon spotted two more bodies in the water, about a mile from the beach at Polly Creek, across the Inlet from the Kenai Peninsula.
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Four Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters took turns blanketing the shoreline and Inlet overnight in search of the remaining men, with the last two bodies discovered around 11 a.m.
The three men discovered Tuesday were wearing life jackets, the Coast Guard said. The two men found Wednesday, less than a mile away, were not.
Coast Guard and company officials had not publicly identified the five dead men as of Wednesday evening.
"They were using the skiffs to move people around -- as well the clams that they would dig up. ... It was reported that they were going from the Polly Creek area back to the camp when they did not arrive," Petty Officer David Mosley said.
The razor clams are harvested with shovels and buckets between Polly Creek and Crescent River, according to the company website. The clam diggers had been at the camp -- reachable by plane or boat -- since May 12, according to a company spokesman. There were 23 people at the camp before the accident, a spokesman said.
The state manages the commercial clamming operation with a harvest goal of fewer than 400,000 pounds of razor clams in the shell each year, said Pat Shields, a state assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game's commercial fisheries division.
Many of the workers are from out of state, he said. The plant manager has told them many come from California, he said. "They stay in tents and they dig the clams from about mid-May to about mid-August."
When tides allow, the clam diggers walk to the beaches or take a skiff or raft to harvest clams, returning to camp when their buckets are full, said acting spokesman Jason Moore of public relations firm MSI Communications.
Individual workers can harvest about 200 to 250 pounds a day, Shields said. "Some even more." He said he didn't how much the workers made. "The last time I looked (sometime last year) it was about 62 cents a pound."
The eastern shore of Cook Inlet has been set aside for sport harvest of razor clams, with the only commercial digging approved for the western shore, where virtually all of up to 400,000 pounds allowed each year are dug by hand, according to Fish and Game.
Nearly 380,000 pounds of razor clams were harvested on Upper Cook Inlet in 2010, the agency says. Much of it goes to restaurant markets in the Lower 48, Shields said.
An eight-page newsletter titled "Razor Review," provided by the company, describes the Polly Creek operation.
"Each man is paid for what he digs. Two to four guys share a raft. The raft brings out the empty buckets and is filled with a tide's worth of razors," the report says. "The scenery is hard to beat."
Pacific Alaska Shellfish, a subsidiary of Oregon-based Pacific Seafood Group, flies the clams in a small plane from the camp to a seasonal processing plant in Nikiski, where they are shucked, cleaned and vacuum-packed for sale, according to the company website.
A company-owned plane makes several trips a day, Shields said, and workers dig as many as 22 days a month as tides allow.
The packaged clams are sold in Alaska, Washington and Oregon, Moore said.
Pacific Seafood chief executive Frank Dulcich was traveling Wednesday and unavailable for comment, Moore said.
In a prepared statement distributed to media and posted on the Pacific Seafood website, Dulcich said the company is heartbroken by the accident.
"This is the most tragic event in the history of our company. These hard-working and experienced individuals have contracted with our company for many years and are considered close friends and family," Dulcich said.
The crew members killed in the accident are supervised by a longtime contractor for Pacific Alaska Shellfish, the company said. That supervisor was not on board the skiff, Moore said.
"They're not direct employees of the company and so what happens is these guys sort of set their (hours) on when they're going to fish and when they're not going to fish," he said.
The company "will do everything within our power to comfort the family members ... and learn the facts behind this terrible tragedy," Dulcich said in a prepared statement.
The clam diggers held licenses and permit from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Fish and Game, the company said.
The Coast Guard and Alaska State Troopers are investigating to determine the cause of the accident.
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