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Special Feature: Digging deep into the stalled geoduck trade

Chinese ban has clam producers looking to grow domestic markets

By Melissa Wood
March 01, 2014

If ever a seafood could be called special, it would be geoduck (pronounced, “gooey duck”). The elongated giant clam is a rumored aphrodisiac, Northwest icon and reality TV star (appearing on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” “Bizarre Foods,” “Top Chef,” “Dirty Jobs” and “Chopped,” to name a few). It’s also a highly prized hotpot delicacy in China, where consumers pay top dollar for the species that is now the subject of a controversial ban of West Coast shellfish. 

Geoducks are local legends on Puget Sound. Josh Green remembers going out for geoducks while growing up on Washington’s Vashon Island. He and his father would take their shovels out at midnight to look for the telltale bubbling in the sand indicating a siphon. Then it was time to “dig deep” — which is the meaning of the Nisqually American Indian word, “gweduc” — to reach the rest of the clam, about 3 feet below.

Green now believes part of his father’s intention was to wear him out with all the digging. No matter. “It was always so much fun,” he says. “We’d take it home and clean it, and fry it up for lunch the next day. We were loving it.”

Green, who is chef for the Ballard Annex Oyster House in Seattle, has cooked geoducks in a variety of ways over the years. He sources from Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Wash., which he began working with about eight years ago, and credits for its careful handling of the animals that allows them to be brought in live. 

To start, he blanches the clams in salt water then puts them in an ice pack. His preparations for Ballard Annex have included crudo, ceviche or a quick pan fry with light flavors that don’t overwhelm the geoduck’s light, sweet flavor: an Asian-flavored ceviche with citrus and sesame oil, for instance, or a rosemary lemon crudo paired with a beet-infused martini.

“It has enough of a unique flavor. I think it’s really nice to highlight that,” he says.

In mid-February, geoducks were on the menus of about 20 Seattle restaurants, a fact that was reported by local station Jefferson Public Radio as part of an effort to grow domestic demand as the Chinese ban that began Dec. 3 continued to hurt the industry. 

In February Green featured the clams in a chowder, partly because the month is a slow time for restaurants in Seattle and the soup gives the product a longer shelf life. He also views chowder as a way to introduce more Seattle diners to a local species that doesn’t yet have the status as favorites like oysters or wild salmon.

“Most people are like, ‘I’ve had that in sushi before with a little bit of rice.’ People are familiar with it,” says Green. “Then you get people from the Northwest who are like, ‘I remember digging that with my dad.’” 

Usually geoducks bypass the local market for China, where diners will pay up to $150 a pound for them; the United States exported $68 million worth of geoducks in 2012, primarily from Washington state. But that market closed its doors to U.S. producers after Chinese officials reported finding unacceptable levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and inorganic arsenic in shipments from Alaska and Washington, respectively. 

Though the shipments were traced to distinct shellfish harvesting areas, the findings led to a ban on West Coast molluscan shellfish (clams, oysters, mussels and scallops) from Alaska to Northern California, which are all included in the same Area 67 in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s health form — creating a serious problem for both wild and farmed producers who rely on its high value. By the end of December, Washington’s Department of Natural Resources reported a revenue loss of almost $1 million from the wild fishery because of the trade issue.

Hopes for a quick end to the ban ended on Jan. 23 with a letter from Chinese officials to NOAA that raised questions about U.S. health procedures. 

Among the ongoing issues is what part of the animal is typically consumed. After Washington state officials had traced the source of the shipment in question to Poverty Bay, they tested geoduck there for arsenic and found the edible portions below the Chinese standard. But “edible portions” didn’t include the skin and “Chinese consumers eat the geoduck meat and skin and sometimes the digestive gland, too,” stated the letter. 

Geoducks have long been a part of Northwestern lore. An iconic postcard from Washington’s Hood Canal shows a boy sitting on a giant geoduck about to club it with a bat. But the commercial fishery for geoducks is relatively new, beginning in 1970, according to Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms. 

Dewey says it began after the Japanese, who use it in sushi, came looking for a substitute for horse clams. The person they approached, Brian Hodgson, didn’t realize the Northwest also had horse clams so he introduced them to geoducks instead. 

Until about 10 years ago, most geoducks were wild and harvested by divers. But farmed production has grown to almost 1.5 to 2 million pounds annually, says Dewey. Most of the production comes from Taylor and Seattle Shellfish, also in Shelton. There are also two dozen or so smaller farming operations.

“The grand total of the industry is farming on a little over 300 acres of tidelands,” says Dewey. “The entire industry would fit inside two crop circles, but it’s a very high value.”

In the wild geoducks can live to be more than 150 years old, and they grow slowly — it takes them about 39 years to reach a harvestable size. Dewey says the state began looking at ways to develop hatchery technique in the early 90s to speed up the process, which yielded little survival until officials developed a method of using PVC pipes in state parks. Though funding ran out for that effort, Dewey says commercial operators learned from these state methods to commercialize them.

First, seed is produced in a hatchery, then a series of nursery steps take the clams through the larva and plankton phases until they’re about a half-inch in size. “Then we take them out to farms and then we plant them in PVC nursery tubes [about a foot long] then we stamp it in the beach so there’s 3 inches showing,” says Dewey. “Then we plant the geoduck in the holes and the plastic tube gets covered with individual nets or a net over the whole field to keep predators out.”

He explains that geoducks are subtidal — meaning that they live below where the tide goes out. The tubes help create miniature tidepools to prevent drying out at low tide. It takes about five years for the clams to reach a harvestable size of about a pound and a half to 2 pounds.  

Because of the Chinese ban, Taylor Shellfish has had to lay off 14 employees, says Dewey, but diversifying has helped the company weather tough times.

“That’s been a big part of Taylor’s overall business plan, to diversify our farm locations, diversify our species and diversify our markets,” says Dewey. “We lost over a million dollars in sales [in December]. It’s devastated our workers whose jobs rely on it, but as a company we’re able to sustain the blow.”

Jim Gibbons, CEO and founder of Seattle Shellfish, says his company is also surviving.

“December was a tough month. January has been an OK month,” says Gibbons. “We’ve tightened down our projected capital expenditures because of uncertainty in the marketplace. We’ve had some layoffs, but that was more a function of the tide than the boycott.”

The company, which has 50 to 70 employees, depending on the time of year, including 18 geoduck divers, was focusing on the domestic market as well as destinations like Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan.

“In China, I’ve been told that the word mark for crisis means the same as opportunity. It also could be an opportunity to open up new markets and diversify ourselves
a bit better,” says Gibbons. “I think that’s more of a long-range process. In the interim we’re just going to have to make do and hope it gets resolved soon, which I think it will.”

Email Assistant Editor Melissa Wood at mwood@divcom.com

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