The geoduck (gooey duck), Panopea abrupta, is a species of large saltwater clam, a marine bivalve mollusk. The shell of this clam is large, about 15 to over 20 cm in length (about 7 to 9 inches), but the long siphons make the clam itself much longer; the "neck" or siphons alone can be one meter in length.
Geoducks are one of the longest-living organisms in the Animal Kingdom. They have a life expectancy of about 146 years, with the oldest recorded at over 160 years. Scientists speculate that the geoduck's longevity is the result of low wear and tear. A geoduck sucks plankton down through its long siphon, filters them for food and ejects its refuse out through a separate hole in the siphon. Adult geoducks have few natural predators, which may also contribute to their longevity. In Alaska, sea otters and dogfish have proved capable of dislodging geoducks; starfish also attack and feed on the exposed geoduck siphon.
The world's first geoduck fishery was created in 1970, but demand for the semi-forgotten clam was low due to its texture. Today, they sell in Asia for up to US$30/lb (US$65/kg). Geoduck, like shark fin soup and black bear gall bladders, is highly regarded for its claimed physiological effect. In the case of geoducks it is the "enhancement of male performance" (see picture to left and below right). Its large, meaty siphon is also prized by some for its savory flavor and crunchy texture. It is extremely popular in China, where it is considered a delicacy. Geoduck is mostly eaten cooked in a fondue-style Chinese hot pot or raw sashimi style, dipped in soy sauce and wasabi. In Korean cuisine, geoducks are eaten in raw with spicy chili sauce, sautéed, or in soups and stews. On Japanese menus, geoduck is called mirugai or mirukuigai. It also has a texture similar to an Ark Shell (Akagai). (Although mirugai is sometimes translated to English as "Giant Clam", it is distinguished from "Himejako" sushi made from Tridacna gigas.)
The geoduck's high market value has created an $80 million U.S. industry, with harvesting occurring in both Washington state and the province of British Columbia. It is one of the most closely regulated fisheries in both countries; in Washington, Department of Natural Resources staff are on the water continually monitoring harvests in order to assure revenues are received, and the same is true in Canada where the Underwater Harvesters' Association manages the Canadian Fishery in conjunction with Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The Washington Department of Health tests water and flesh in order to assure clams are not filtering and holding pollutants, an ongoing problem. As of the 2007 season, advances in the testing system for contaminated clams have allowed geoduck harvesters to deliver live clams more consistently. The new testing system determines the viability of clams from tested beds before the harvesters fish the area. Previous methods tested clams after harvest. This advancement has meant that 90 percent of clams were delivered live to market in 2007. In 2001 only 10 percent were live. Because geoduck have a much higher market value live - an additional $2-3 per pound - , this development has helped to stimulate the burgeoning industry.
Regulation of environmental impacts are just now beginning to evolve. Demand has also led to a rapidly developing aquaculture industry. Geoduck aquaculture on private tidelands in Puget Sound, particularly in South Puget Sound, has been steadily growing over the last ten years, averaging about 10 new acres of cultivation per year. Currently less than 0.001% of Puget Sound is dedicated to geoduck farming. Geoduck farms use "predator exclusion devices" in which to plant the seed geoducks. These devices are PVC pipes -- 10 to long, four to six inches (152 mm) in diameter -- pushed into the tideland sediment. There are approximately 20,000 to 43,500 of these PVC pipes planted per acre on tidelands. These nursery tubes typically stay in the beach for the first year or two of a crop cycle.
While the Environmental Defense Fund has done extensive studies of aquaculture and has found that oysters and mussels are marginally beneficial to the marine environment, Rebecca Goldburg has noted she did not study Geoducks.
The water must be certifiably clean in order to plant geoducks commercially. This is a requirement of the Washington State Department of Health Office of Shellfish and Water Protection and of the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Council.
While some communities in Puget Sound have installed state of the art septic systems to comply with efforts by environmental groups and state officials to clean up Puget Sound, more than 3000 acres (12 km²) of shellfish beds have been lost to farming between 1992 and 2004 due to fecal contamination from human activities and development. Substantial portions of the state's shorelines are already so developed or degraded that they are unsuitable for harvesting, and other areas continue to follow suit. Encouraging the firm enforcement of regulations is a critical component in helping assure the shellfish industry's economic success, and with it jobs and tax revenues.
Geoduck farming grow-out and harvest practices are highly controversial and can be seen through photo documentation in a Powerpoint slide show about geoduck aquaculture in South Puget Sound These practices have created serious conflicts with shoreline property owners; concerns from Non Governmental Organization (NGO's) (e.g., Tacoma Audubon and Sierra Club); and others simply interested in the health of Puget Sound. The shoreline development groups have expressed concerns including lack of regulation, aesthetics, effects on native geoduck populations, impacts on wildlife, farm debris, intensive farming/harvest techniques, agricultural densities of geoducks, carrying capacity of low flushing inlets, nearshore habitat destruction, overenrichment of sediments from intensive shellfish biodeposits and the permanent conversion of natural ecosytems to intensive commercial agricultural use on the tidelands of Puget Sound. Shoreline developers are particularly concerned because they see shellfish farming as an impediment to continued bulkheading, upland deforestation and septic tank installation. The main objectives of the newly created Puget Sound Partnership include habitat preservation, habitat restoration, preservation of biodiversity and recovery of imperiled species (salmon).
The Washington State Shellfish Aquaculture Regulatory Committee stakeholder group, including industry, agency and citizen representatives has convened to discuss regulation of this industry. This is mandated by the 2007 Shellfish Aquaculture Bill, SHB 2220 Counties such as Pierce County have also begun to develop regulations covering tideland impacts from geoduck farming, something Taylor Shellfish has filed a suit against.
Although some marine shoreline owners take issue with the visual impacts, the tubes are actually only visible 2-3% of daylight hours over a 6-year crop cycle. The reason for the low visibility is because geoduck are farmed in the lower elevations of the beach and are covered by water most of the time.
However, since the lowest tides in the summer are during mid-day, the visual and recreational impact of the tubes is greatest at the very time when the people of Puget Sound are likely to be using the beach. During summer, a citzen group Geoduck Farm Visibility Chart shows that the average percentage of time during daylight hours that the farms are visible is 19% per day and the number of days from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day that farms are visible some portion of the day is 76%. This is calculated for geoducks planted to a +2 tidal level in Thurston County, Washington, one of the counties of South Puget Sound where the geoduck farms are clustered without any environmental siting criteria, public comment or environmental review. When calculated for a +3 tidal elevation (where geoduck are never farmed), the amount of visibility rises to an average per day of 23% of daylight hours and 87% of the days of the summer.
Impacts on tideland include placing as many as 44,000 PVC pipes per acre on privately held tidelands; removal of this "artificial reef" one to three years later; then harvest after 5 to 6 years. While these practices may have short term impacts to the tidelands, these impacts are not nearly as great as the documented impacts from upland residential development including bulkheading of the shoreline (disrupting the natural beach creation process), deforestation of the upland (creating increased stormwater run-off) and placing of septic systems in the shoreline habitat (creating nitrogen loading of the coastal waters). Fortunately, these upland impacts are readily dealt with through enforcement of existing regulations. Unfortunately, there are no meaningful regulations controlling geoduck farming and whatever the tideland impacts may be, whether short term or long term.
A January 2008 Washington Sea Grant paper, commissioned by the state of Washington to determine what studies existed on Geoduck aquaculture, found virtually no peer-reviewed research existed. Some take this lack of research as proof there is no known cumulative or substative [sic] impacts from geoduck farming. Fortunately, studies have been funded to determine what the short and long term environmental impacts are; what the short and long term genetic impacts to the wild populations are; and, what the effects of geoduck aquaculture on soft-sediment tideflat and eelgrass meadow habitats is. When they are complete a clear picture of what impacts have occurred will be known.
Some claim farm densities of geoducks are similar to unharvested natural beds in the wild, pointing to two or three of the highest samples of hundreds taken. Not considered is that subtidal population densities are not comparable to intertidal densities. Some speculate the intertidal natural densities are lower due to 40 years of harvest without replnating [sic], perhaps resulting in most of the natural beds having been depleted. However, without ever knowing the original population densities, this is only speculation. What is factual is that the Department of Fish and Wildlife's Commercial Geoduck Tract typically finds wild densities far below the farmed densities of ~2 geoducks per square foot, with typical average densities of only .3/square foot or less.
Some also speculate that the effects on native geoduck populations (outside of the harvested area) from geoduck farming is minimal to non-existent.. Washington Sea Grant has noted no research on this exists. They have commissioned a study to look at this specific risk to the wild population.
Each year new hatchery brood stock is taken from the wild stock. Farmed animals are not used as brood stock so genetically, farmed geoduck are the same as wild stocks. Moreover, wild geoduck occupy the intertidal zone down to below sea level. DNR and the tribes co-manage the wild fishery and only harvest geoduck between the -18 to -70 foot depths. The annual leased harvest of the wild geoduck population by the WA State Department of Natural Resources Geoduck Fisheries Program is about 4 million pounds a year.
Wildlife interactions are a concern and geoduck growers are adapting growing techniques to minimize these effects. A biological assessment examining the impacts of geoduck farming was completed and no long term effects on threatened or endangered species were identified. This 2004 draft document was commissioned by three of the largest commercial shellfish companies in the Puget Sound region. Why it still remains a draft document is unknown.
Farm debris includes displaced net tops, rubber bands, and PVC tubes. The net tops used on the nursery pipes can come off and float away onto other beaches as debris and the rubber bands also can become debris in Puget Sound. To offset these environmental impacts most geoduck farmers have embraced environmental codes of practice including regular maintenance and debris clean-up of their own farms. In addition, the industry now does two annual beach cleanups to collect marine debris from all beaches in areas where they farm. Although as much as 20% of the debris collected in each cleanup has been aquaculture related, less than 5% of the collected to date has been related to geoduck farming. Unfortunately, because of the currents in Puget Sound, nets and tubing can be found far from any poorly maintained geoduck operations. This lack of control over loose gear remains a significant enough problem that bonding requirements are being considered as part of regulations being developed.
Harvesting takes place every 4-6 years. Water pressure hoses using up to 50 gallons of water per minute are used to extract the geoducks buried under two to three feet of sediment depth. There are no environmental impact studies related to intertidal harvest of geoduck as of August 2006, although the sub-tidal environmental impact studies done for the fisheries in BC and WA have found no detrimental effects in harvesting the clams. Geoduck farming is only conducted in clean, uncontaminated sediments so concern is limited to short term increases in turbidity and short term effect on benthic organisms. The Department of Natural Resources of Washington State conducted the environmental impact study. DNR is itself in the business of leasing subtidal lands for commercial geoduck harvest and starting this year, intertidal lands for commercial geoduck farming.