Geoducks: pretty ugly, but pretty tasty

State-sponsored harvests in island waters see higher yields this year. Daniel Spenser grimaced a bit after reeling in another 200 pounds of wrinkled, pale flesh from Port Madison Bay’s waters. “I get sick of looking at them sometimes,” he said, as the heap of geoduck clams squirted streams of briny water onto the Gold Rush’s deck. “Yeah, I’ve seen enough of them that I don’t think I’ll ever eat them,” added fellow deckhand Marshall Watkins of Port Angeles, as he swung a crateful onto a scale. While they may not win any blue ribbons for beauty, the hefty mollusks easily take home the biggest cash prize.

  • Saturday, April 2, 2005 7:00pm
  • News

Deckhand Daniel Spenser reels in a load of geoducks from Port Madison Bay.

State-sponsored harvests in island waters see higher yields this year.

Daniel Spenser grimaced a bit after reeling in another 200 pounds of wrinkled, pale flesh from Port Madison Bay’s waters.

“I get sick of looking at them sometimes,” he said, as the heap of geoduck clams squirted streams of briny water onto the Gold Rush’s deck.

“Yeah, I’ve seen enough of them that I don’t think I’ll ever eat them,” added fellow deckhand Marshall Watkins of Port Angeles, as he swung a crateful onto a scale.

While they may not win any blue ribbons for beauty, the hefty mollusks easily take home the biggest cash prize.

Fetching around $25 per clam in Asia, geoducks are the most highly-regulated and monitored sea creature in the world.

The Puget Sound geoduck harvest year, which ends this week, is expected to dump about $8 million dollars into state coffers – that’s up $1 million from the yearly average.

A cash crop in league with some of the more illicitly traded commodities, Port Madison Bay’s 340,000-pound yield this year could fetch over $4.6 million in the markets of the Far East.

The Gold Rush’s owner and lead diver, Rob Mead, watched the Port Madison harvest roll in Wednesday with a smile. He’s happy to be back along Bainbridge Island’s shores, pulling in a crop that’s been off limits for years.

“Look at them with the white necks,” he said, pulling at his handlebar mustache. “They’re a good size and long. That’s a good clam, and Bainbridge has got a lot of them.”

The harvest

The state Department of Natural Resources has, since the 1970s, granted conditional use permits to commercial geoduck harvesters.

Awarding harvest contracts to private operators and then charging them $4-6 per pound brought in, the DNR has generated over $60 million for state programs in the last 10 years.

Half of the revenue pays for the management and protection of state-owned aquatic lands, while the remainder is placed into the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account, which restores native habitat in state waters.

In the late 1990s, Kitsap County blocked the DNR from harvesting geoducks, citing concerns over the environmental impact caused by geoduck harvesting.

Commercial harvest boats typically employ divers who use water jets to dislodge the burrowing clams. The divers crawl along, tossing their quarry in long net bags that are then hauled aboard small fishing vessels.

Some county officials said harvesters were “high-grading” – pulling the giant clams from their shells to check for quality and then discarding them if they didn’t meet a certain market criteria. Once pulled from the sand, the immobile geoduck will die.

Concerns were also raised that harvesting hurt sensitive underwater habitat and a few island residents complained about the noise from compressors and other shipboard equipment.

Despite local opposition, the state Shorelines Hearings Board ruled in the DNR’s favor, reopening county waters – which hold 40 percent of the Puget Sound’s harvestable geoducks – and more than 1,500 acres of state-owned bedlands around the island.

In addition to Port Madison Bay, the DNR holds harvest permits for bedlands off Agate Passage, Battle Point, Murden Cove and Skiff Point; several of those areas saw harvests in the mid-1990s, after a series of hearings before the Bainbridge Island City Council.

Bainbridge-area geoducks are also harvested by local tribes, which are entitled by treaty to half of the fishery.

Tribal harvesting is not part of the state harvest, and are not subject to the terms of city permits. Most recent tribal harvesting has centered around Indianola, with a few forays off Skiff Point, DNR officials said.

As the state and county wrangled for five years, Port Madison Bay’s geoducks thrived, sprouting a bounteous crop ripe for this year’s harvest. Geoducks can live up to 165 years but are harvestable in just six.

“They grow like trees,” Mead said. “We just need figure out a way to get more of them planted.”

The yield

But unlike slumping timber prices, the market value of geoducks has, in just two decades, skyrocketed from a half-dollar per pound in the 1980s to $12-15 per pound today.

Once used to thicken chowder at Northwest seafood joints, the meaty clam now thins wallets at some of Japan’s priciest sushi restaurants.

The growing upper-class in China have also caught on and now trump Japan in demand. Hong Kong’s wealthy are willing to fork over $100 a plate for Washington geoducks given the gourmet treatment.

Increased demand has spurred commercial harvesters to start up geoduck farms, where the infant clams are seeded and reaped in carefully controlled shorelines.

DNR does not regulate the new farms, but shellfish program coordinator Mike Chevalier believes wild geoduck will always stay in demand.

“In Asia, there’s an implied health benefit in wild stock,” he said, adding that the older the clam, the more it is believed to boost the eater’s vitality.

While the Asian market lit the fuze for the geoduck boom, the glow of economic success over the last 25 years also came with the shadow of the black market.

A seafood broker was convicted in 1997 for purchasing $330,000 worth of illegal geoduck stock and for hiring a hitman to intimidate a rival broker.

In 1989, six Puget Sound residents were convicted of stealing almost $2 million worth of geoducks from state aquatic lands in a case famously dubbed “Clamscam.”

But those wild days are a thing of the past, said DNR enforcement officer Greg Dash.

“We’re out there all the time, watching the harvesters,” he said. “That sets a precedent and so there’s very few violations. We’re like the guards in the bank.”

Dash and his team of two other officers constantly monitor the dozen or so boats harvesting off Port Madison. They do two or three compliance dives each week to check for damaged beds and high-grading.

Penalties for a discarded geoduck costs a harvester triple the clam’s typical price. And DNR can hit harvesters with the $100 an hour rate they charge for investigating crimes.

“Harvest casualty” violations are easy to spot, said enforcement officer Kevin Crigger, who is also a former geoduck harvest diver.

“Predators are on the geoducks almost immediately,” he said aboard the DNR’s Brownsville-based compliance vessel. “You just look for the pile of starfish or crabs. There’s very little incentive to violate the regulations, and we can spot them easily. We’re the discouraging factor.”

DNR enforcement officers board harvest vessels daily to weigh all catches to ensure against overharvesting.

Mead has become quite familiar with the officers, who jokingly chided him for his new biker-esque facial hair.

Mead said doesn’t mind the daily checkups from DNR’s ground-level staff, but he’s ready to dish an earful to the folks in Olympia.

“These guys here on my boat, they’re not my enemy,” he said below deck as the officers counted geoducks. “It’s the upper level management and the Legislature that are holding our fisheries hostage.”

Mead would like to see more of the state’s geoduck earnings directed toward research that will increase future harvest yields.

“This is very profitable for the state and they have a death-grip on it,” he said. “That’s my big (gripe), that they don’t reinvest even though they could.”

Mead said harvesters are responsible stewards of the clam.

“I want this to sustain because I want to have a job,” he said. “I’d be hurting myself and my own future if they were depleted.”

DNR also contends much has been done to maintain the health of geoduck beds. The harvests are rotated around the state each year, as part of a management plan to conserve the resource.

As the harvest year ended Thursday, a new year began Friday, with many harvesters – and the DNR enforcement team – moving on to beds off Port Angeles.

While 65 to 80 percent of the clams in individual beds may be harvested, overall activities take no more than 2 percent of the resource statewide each year, according to Bash.

Harvest divers are also confined to bedlands between 35-70 feet deep to protect eel grass and other at-risk habitat around the island.

“DNR manages the geoducks for the benefit of the citizens of the state – not just fishermen and harvest companies,” Chevalier said. “I like the fact that at least 50 percent of what the state brings in goes to aquatic programs.

“We all want geoducks to sustain, and they have, because Mother Nature always does a great job.”

* * * * *

Clam-ology

• The largest geoduck on record weighed in at 14 pounds. The average weight for the clam is about 2 pounds.

• There are an estimated 500 million pounds of geoduck in Puget Sound, giving the mollusk the largest biomass of any marine animal in the region.

• Geoduck is pronounced “goo-ee-duck,” reflecting the Nisqually word “gwe-duc,” which means “dig deep.”

• The geoduck is the mascot of the Evergreen State College. The Olympia-based school’s fight song includes the phrase “go, geoduck, go! Siphon high, siphon low!” Evergreen’s Latin motto, “Omnia Extares” roughly translates to “Let it all hang out.”

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