Diving for a Duck

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When the state Department of Natural Resources first proposed opening Bainbridge waters to commercial geoduck harvesting, the reception was far from cordial.

Shoreline residents registered complaints about the impact commercial harvesting would have on their homes, while environmentalists were critical of the DNR’s methods for setting geoduck harvest and recovery figures. Then the city attempted to block the department’s first application for a conditional use permit, which would allow them access to Bainbridge shores under the Shoreline Master Plan.

Now, after nearly five years of digging up the world’s largest, burrowing bivalves in and around Bainbridge, the harvest is slowly winding down, leaving some issues unresolved and new financial burdens for the city.

Geoduck clams, native to the Puget Sound, are currently one of the most valuable aquaculture resources in Washington. Market price for geoduck, which is prized for its meaty siphon, can exceed $20 per pound in foreign markets. The price of geoduck is being driven by an unrelenting desire in China, where the majority of those harvested around Bainbridge end up.

The state oversees the harvesting of geoducks in Puget Sound and coordinates quotas with native tribes who legally have rights to 50 percent of the clams. Beds of geoducks are surveyed and the rights to harvest those beds are auctioned off each year to corporate fisheries that usually subcontract the work to small crews.

Currently, DNR is overseeing clamming operations on the Port Madison aquaculture bed – a large plot of seabed that extends from Point Monroe Drive towards Agate Point. This particular bed has been harvested many times over the past five years. In the last auction, DNR combined this bed with Murden Cove and a few others. All the auction rights combined went for a total of $3 million.

But Port Madison and other areas around Bainbridge are starting to dry up.

“There are several tracts harvested by the state and the tribes that are close to being put on recovery status,” said Mike Chevalier, DNR’s natural resources program coordinator. “When we are done at Port Madison on Sept. 12, it will probably go into to recovery status.”

Skiff Point was designated a recovery zone earlier this year. Beds like Murden Cove are still commercially viable, but others such as Battle Point/Manzanita are often closed due to high levels of the poisoning toxin PSP. All DNR harvesting around Bainbridge should be concluded next year.

According to Chevalier, geoduck harvests are imperative to maintaining the state’s Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account, which doles out grant money for shoreline renewal projects.

“The money we get from auctions are the largest contributor to the ALEA fund,” Chevalier said. “They get 50 percent of all geoduck revenues.”

While DNR paid Bainbridge only $1,000 for a shoreline use-permit and another $200 to extend the permit until December 2009, ALEA grants have been generously awarded to Bainbridge in the past.

The Waterfront Park upgrade received nearly $450,000 in matching grant money from ALEA. The city’s parks department garnered about $750,000 for Blakely Harbor Park and also has a promising request for monies to help offset the $1.7 million purchase of the Williams property. It appears, however, that the transfer of island geoduck beds to recovery status (repopulation can take anywhere from 12 to 68 years) could mean an end to those grants.

Plus, the city and DNR are currently negotiating for lost revenues pertaining to a sewer outfall to could be expensive for the city. The Wing Point wastewater treatment plant has an outfall that ends in the middle of a harvestable geoduck bed. Although the outfall pipe is not polluting the Sound, the possibility of plant failure and subsequent sewage overflow through the pipe is not something DNR wants to risk.

“They don’t want to sell the rights to geoducks around the outfall,” Public Works Director Randy Witt said. “They are saying we can’t harvest there, so you need to make it up. We are paying them for the resource...”

Annual payments to DNR will average somewhere between $34,000 and $50,000. The alternative is the removal, redirection or elongation of the current outfall pipe, which would be a multi-million project if the sewage had to be treated to a higher level.

“We have been talking to them about rerouting their wastewater to Eagle Harbor,” said Fran McNair, DNR’s aquatic lands steward. “The of these aquaculture beds as possible. So what we try to do is create incentives.”

Witt said Eagle Harbor is already a semi polluted site. “DNR doesn’t care, but the Department of Ecology will notice when you put an additional load into the harbor,” he said.

The dilemma is becoming a priority for public works and the council, Witt said. But until action occurs, the first check to DNR for the rights to harvest untouchable geoducks will be sent within the next year, and could extend beyond the point when the commercial harvesters have pulled up anchor for the last time.

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