Local harvest means money to state

The geoduck is recognizable by it neck, or siphon, which is too large to fit in its shell. It is the only clam that can
The geoduck is recognizable by it neck, or siphon, which is too large to fit in its shell. It is the only clam that can't dig itself back into the sand.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

A geoduck pulled from the bottom of Mutiny Bay may end up on a diner's plate in Shanghai, China just 24 hours later. That's good news for geoduck harvesters, but not so good for Western Washington's weirdest clam.

Off the shores of South Whidbey, commercial harvesters dug up 553,000 pounds of geoduck this season, mostly for sale in Asian markets. The Puget Sound fishery nets millions of dollars for the state of Washington and is considered the most regulated fishery in the state.

For the last several months, harvesters have been visible in Mutiny Bay and near Double Bluff. Along with the six commercial boats in each area is a ubiquitous Washington State Department of Natural Resources enforcement boat shadowing the harvesters.

"Where they go, we go," Jerry Inman, a member of the DNR enforcement staff said this week. "If they want to move to another area within the tract, they have to radio us for permission."

Inman and Kurt Heikkila do their work aboard the 42-foot "Dawn Breaker," one of the state's three enforcement boats. They are on the water watching harvesters every day of the season, which is about three months long around South Whidbey. Harvesting can take place between 8:30 a.m. and about 4:30 p.m. on week days.

"They can't begin harvesting until we are on the scene," Inman said.

Geoducks are harvested by divers who swim along the bottom with pressurized equipment that works like a pressure washer. They loosen the creatures, which are a giant variety of clam, from several feet of mud. Divers pull geoducks out of the muck one at a time, then toss them into a bag. Once the bag is full, the crew aboard a harvest boat pulls it up to crate the catch.

On a good day, Inman said, a diver can pull in 1,000 to 1,200 pounds of geoduck. The more the better for the state. By contract, Washington state receives $4 to $6 a pound for all the geoduck harvested in state waters. Geoduck wholesales for between $10 to $14 a pound.

Commercial harvesters contract with DNR for geoduck and must follow strict regulations. Leigh Espy, a division manager for the state DNR, said

Ignoring those regulations can mean stiff penalties and the loss of a contract. Without a contract, geoduck harvesting is illegal.

Espy said the contracts and the fees the DNR charges harvesters keep enforcement activities in the black and geoducks off the endangered species list.

"This is the only fishery in the state that funds its own enforcement," he said.

Twelve commercial contracts were issued this year for geoduck harvest around South Whidbey. Ten harvesters are licensed to take up to 48,500 pounds of geoduck, while the other two max out at 25,000 pounds this season.

Whidbey's two contract areas, located near Double Bluff and in Mutiny Bay, encompass 167 total acres. That's a lot of water to cover, but the DNR does it.

At the end of each harvest day, Inman and Heikkila weigh the catch. Once harvesters reach dock, the clams are loaded into cartons and onto refrigerated trucks bound for the airport. Flown to Asia, the geoducks are served fresh, or frozen for future use.

For the American palate, geoduck may be an acquired taste. Inman recommends the clam as good eating, especially in chowder, fritters or on the grill.

South Whidbey's tracts, like all DNR geoduck areas, will be harvested until 60 to 70 percent of the animals have been taken, something that could take five to 10 years. Then it will be put into a recovery mode. The average recovery time statewide is 39 year, meaning up to four decades can pass before geoduck harvesters are allowed to return. Some areas, however, can recover in five or six years.

Managing the geoduck fishery is serious business for the state, said Morris Barker, a Department of Fish and Wildlife resource manger.

His office is responsible for catching poachers who dive in undesignated geoduck areas. One of the agency's most publicized cases involved a Pierce County man who was arrested in March for allegedly leading a $2 million crab and geoduck clam poaching ring.

Both Fish and Wildlife and DNR are determined to stay ahead of poachers. Doug Williams, aquatics resources division manager for the DNR, said before his office issues a commercial contract for geoducks, individual license holders, divers, companies and anyone working on a geoduck boat is scrutinized.

"We do thorough background checks," he said. "We have learned from past experience."

Nine years ago, the DNR expanded its enforcement. Since then, poaching violations has decreased by 75 percent, Williams said.

Over the last eight years, the geoduck program has generated approximately $60 million in revenue for the state through public auctions of harvest quotas. Half the revenue from geoduck sales is placed in the Resource Management Cost Account and pays for management and protection of state-owned aquatic resources.

The other half of the revenue is placed in the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account. That account was created by the Legislature in 1984 to develop public access to aquatic lands. Since 1984, the ALEA grant program has distributed over $30 million for more than 200 local projects allowing cities, counties, ports and tribes to develop shoreline access, habitat acquisition, and habitat restoration.

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