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Geoducks: Monster bivalves worth big bucks

Thanks to demand in Asia and legal victories in the U.S., American Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest dominate a rich trade in giant clams called geoducks (pronounced gooey-ducks).
Marco Moreira, the executive chef of New York’s 15 East and Tocqueville restaurants, likes to serve geoducks raw, with a bit of soy, olive oil and wasabi. "I love it for its crunchy texture as much as its flavor," he says.Elaine Thompson / AP
/ Source: Business Week

The tribal police are tied up alongside the Ichiban, a broad, aluminum dive boat that bucks against its anchor line 300 yards offshore. Only one of the Ichiban’s two dive lines is running at the moment, trailing off the stern into the granite waters of South Puget Sound. The Ichiban’s captain, Craig Parker, stares intently as the tribal officer finishes his paperwork — capping off an inspection of the Ichiban’s safety procedures and a proficiency test to certify that all members of Parker’s crew are qualified to do their strange work 40 to 50 feet below the surface.

“We did good,” Captain Parker barks over the growl of the compressors after the inspectors have gone. “Everybody passed inspection, and Connie did great.” Connie Whitener, who with her bookish demeanor seems more like a schoolteacher than a certified commercial diver, offers a shy smile, then tugs the collar of her parka against the steady rain. Like everyone on board, Whitener is a member of the 1,000-strong Squaxin Island tribe. It’s been a while since she’s worked a shift as a ducker, and she’d be prohibited from doing so if the inspectors failed her. Duckers dive exclusively for the giant, burrowing clams known as geoducks. According to Indian tribal law, you’re not a ducker if you can’t fill a 50-pound crate of clams in less than 15 minutes. Having filled her crate fast enough, Whitener will now be entitled to an equal share (split seven ways) of the day’s $25,000 harvest.

An adult geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck) averages about three pounds, and while market value fluctuates daily, the overall price for these monstrous bivalves has been climbing steadily for 40 years. This spring geoducks have been going for $10 a pound on the dock at Zittel’s Marina at Johnson Point northeast of Olympia, Wash. Eighteen hours and one international flight later they can go for four times that in the markets of Shenzhen, China, where the clams are a coveted gourmet ingredient known as xiàng bá bàng, or “elephant trunk.” Prized in China for the sweet meat of the siphon, the clam’s tubular organ, and their crisp texture, geoducks are prepared as part of a fondue-like hot pot. In Japan they’re served as sashimi, mirugai, or simply giant clam. Apparently because of their resemblance to a dangling body part belonging to 50 percent of large mammals, geoducks are also reputed to promote male sexual vigor. “There’s no limit to the demand for geoducks from the Asian buyers,” says Casey Bakker, an American who has sold them for 30 years.

Underwater gold rush
For a decade beginning in the early 1980s, the geoduck market was like the ’49 Gold Rush played out on the sandy bottom of the sound. Trade with China was largely unregulated and conducted by a handful of duckers, among them Craig Parker’s father, Glenn, who ran the Ichiban when he wasn’t working as an electrical engineer at Boeing. “When this first started, there were only 10 or 12 [crew members] doing it,” recalls Craig, who crewed the Ichiban under his father. “It was really good money. We were making as much as $20 a pound.” Now that there are 80 crews doing it, he laments, “it’s making a living, nothing more.”

Parker would rather not say how much of a living, but the math isn’t hard to figure — $6 million to $8 million per year shared by the 80 tribe members who dive — and a productive ducker can easily make $75,000 to $100,000 annually. Considering that the median income for Northwest tribes without geoduck divers falls at or near the poverty line, ducking makes a dramatic difference in the lives of the families of the 15 tribes (most with a thousand members, give or take) who engage in the trade. It’s going so well that, inevitably, there’s a fight brewing over who has rights to the geoducks and the unique terms that allow the tribes to duck without bidding on leases or paying income taxes on their harvests.

Geoducks were almost unseen above water until 1960, when a U.S. Navy diver tasked with recovering a wayward torpedo happened upon a prairie of fleshy siphons undulating back and forth on the bottom of Puget Sound. A mature clam lives for about a century (the oldest ever recovered was 146 years old) and passes its time buried three feet beneath the ooze. All that’s visible is the five inches beneath the tip of the siphon as it sways in the current like grass.

When the Washington Natural Resources Dept. assumed responsibility for managing the population in 1970 and sold the harvesting rights to local chowder canneries for 10 cents a pound, hardly anyone noticed. No market for geoduck existed yet. A decade later, as China’s gross domestic product spiked, Asian consumption of the clams jumped to 95 percent of the overall market. Almost overnight, the wholesale price was a staggering $10 per pound.

Puget Sound gold
The Natural Resources Dept. puts the adult population in the state’s waters at 300 million to 400 million. And if you’re searching for geoducks, you needn’t bother looking anywhere else but Puget Sound and the connected Strait of Juan de Fuca, in the waters off Vancouver Island, and Humboldt Bay in Northern California. Their habitat is limited, and that, of course, makes them a great business; one nickname for geoduck is “Puget Sound Gold.”

Because of a constellation of unique circumstances, American Indian duckers, historically barred from participating in any lucrative Northwest fishery (and occasionally beaten by authorities for defying these bans), dominate the trade.

Between 1854 and 1856, Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens negotiated six treaties with the Indians of Western Washington that transferred ownership of all but a few thousand acres of the enormous territory from the Indians to the European settlers. The first, Medicine Creek, was Stevens’s template, written in advance in English and presented to the tribes of what are now Southern Puget Sound. Governor Stevens was known to brag that he could get the Indians to sign their own death warrant if he asked them to — but he had no idea that his treaty contained a time-release poison pill. The crucial clause goes: “The right of taking fish at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the territory.”

For decades, that clause lay dormant as white commercial fishing boomed and the canneries of the Pacific Northwest produced food for a hungry, growing nation. But starting in the 1960s, the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, led largely by the Nisqually, engaged in coordinated acts of civil disobedience known as the Fish Wars to gain access to their treaty rights. Celebrities such as Jane Fonda joined the cause; in 1964, Marlon Brando made headlines after being arrested during a “fish-in.”

Interpreting treaties
In September 1970, after another fish-in culminated in a violent clash with Tacoma police, the office of the U.S. Attorney General filed suit on behalf of the American Indian tribes against Washington State, arguing that the Stevens Treaties granted equal fishing rights to the sovereign nations. “After all, the language in each treaty expressly protects the rights of the tribes against encroachment by American citizens,” says Greg Guedel, a partner at the Seattle law firm Foster Pepper, who regularly represents a number of tribes in the region. “The stakes were very high. If the suit was successful, tribal treaties would be elevated to the level of state law, possibly beyond that.”

In 1974, Judge George Boldt, a conservative Eisenhower appointee and an avid sport fisherman, heard United States v. Washington State in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. To the surprise of many, Boldt not only sided with the fish warriors but also interpreted the words “in common with” to mean the clause granted equal access and therefore entitled Indians to exactly half of all the harvestable fish in the state — even though the native population only represents 1 percent of the total population. “Boldt was the first victory, but the tribes continued to win appeal after appeal,” says Ron Whitener, Squaxin Island ducker, professor at University of Washington Law School, and Connie Whitener’s nephew, who has represented tribal government in treaty rights defense. “Those early legal victories were important, but because the judicial system is adversarial, it has challenges similar to those of direct action. I think we’re beyond that now. Whether it’s fisheries or land rights, the tribes prefer to enter into mediation with state or competitive interests.”

Commercial duckers work in a dry suit tethered to the dive boat above and trailing a pair of hoses. One feeds air to their bulky masks; the other drives seawater through a PVC nozzle known as a stinger at 20 psi (a bit stronger than a garden hose). Darren Ford, the hardest-living, smash-faced crewman aboard the Ichiban, steps off the stern and descends the 40 or so feet to the sandy bottom off Hunter Point. “It’s pretty boring work actually,” says Captain Parker, watching the bubbles from Ford’s rig break the surface. “Once you get used to working on the moon, or a desert, or wherever, nothing much happens. In the spring the mud sharks will hang around you a bit trying to steal the duck off you before you can put it in the basket. I have had a whale poking around me. That’s pretty spooky. Thing is, if a whale gets tangled in your umbilical, that’ll be it. You’ll be in trouble and the whale might not even know.”

Once on the bottom, Ford, not so much walking as crawling, searches out a bed of clams. Using the stinger, he blasts the sand away from each clam, and then, by hand, uproots it. Geoducks are graded for quality in four categories. The siphons of the most expensive, the Ones, are the color of French vanilla ice cream and completely unblemished. The Fours? Well, Fours are fours. They look like roadkill of the sea.

Clear-cutting geoducks
Once unearthed and pried from its sometimes decades-old burrow, the clam is carefully deposited in a basket that Ford trails from a clip on his belt. Then he crawls the foot or so to the next one. This method is as much a product of the strict regulatory strategy as anything else. Washington is one of the few states that authorizes the Natural Resources Dept. to manage the floor of all its navigable waters. Typically a state’s DNR manages more recognizable natural resources such as forests. As a result geoducks are harvested exactly the same way trees are: clear-cutting. DNR and the state Fish & Wildlife Agency conduct a geoduck census, then designate harvestable tracts located in sandy bottom land, free of eel grass, in between 18 and 80 feet of water. (The 80-foot limit is to remove the possibility of duckers being felled by decompression sickness, better known as the bends.) Once denuded, a geoduck tract takes as long as a forest to recover.

Every year the DNR establishes the Total Allowable Catch (TAC), just 2.7 percent of the harvestable clams — adults weighing 2 pounds or more — located within the 150 acres of designated tracts. There are an estimated 44,000 acres of geoduck beds in Puget Sound, much of this in water deeper than the 80-foot limit. It is this strict regulation and a raft of others that have won geoduck harvesting the “best choice” rating by Seafood Watch, a commercial fisheries watchdog based at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

Just like clear-cutting, leases for geoduck tracts are awarded at auction to the highest bidder. Rather, 50 percent of them are. Every year an auction is held for non-Indian (called Stateside) geoduck divers. This process generates about $22 million for the state each year. A tax of $3 per pound of harvested clams is worth an additional $6 million. The other half of the TAC is divided among the 15 treaty tribes. It’s the legacy of the Boldt Decision, and it’s what gives American Indian duckers their competitive advantage. “It really is one of the happy endings in the annals of Native American treaty rights,” says Seattle attorney Guedel, staring south over the sound from a conference room in his 35th-floor office.

No two tribes manage their geoduck fisheries the same way. Some, like the Suquamish, are almost corporate; others, such as the Nisqually, are more communal. Some tribes tax their member’s yields at rates as high as Stateside rates: $3 per pound. For the most part, a tribal ducker gets to take home $9 to $10 of that $10-per-pound price on the dock, which leaves many Stateside duckers livid. After the lease cost and taxes are calculated, a Stateside ducker nets about 35 cents to 40 cents on $10 per pound. A good diver can yield 500 to 1,000 pounds a day. That’s certainly worth gassing the boat up, but obviously a much narrower profit for the same day’s work.

Fishing at the bottom
For all the similarities to logging, a ducker is still fishing. “It all depends on conditions in the water,” says Captain Victor Simmons, a retired steamfitter and a member of the Nisqually whose three daughters, Rachel, Pauline and Stacy, work as his divers. “One day you go down, and you can get done with your allotment in two hours. The next day the same allotment takes five hours. Without a current to sweep away the sand you can’t see more than five inches in front of your face.”

In all, the Ichiban’s Captain Parker has a 20-person crew. He says some are stronger divers than others, but he’s lucky because there’s not a dud in the bunch. He’s got a reliable No. 2 in Dave Whitener, Connie’s brother. The others rotate in on a schedule. “That’s unless there’s a special situation,” says Connie. “My sister got real sick and needed an X-ray, so Craig gave me a bunch of shifts to pay for it.”

“And Dave’s getting married in a few months,” laughs Parker. “So he gets as many shifts as he can handle.”

If the 15 tribes have plans to expand beyond their own operations and organize to control the price of geoduck, nobody is saying a word. If they ever do, they’d do well to consider developing their domestic market.

“Geoduck is very hard to get in America,” says Marco Moreira, the executive chef of New York’s 15 East and Tocqueville restaurants. “When we order from purveyors we order four, knowing we’ll only get two if we’re lucky.” Moreira says he frequently pays $30 to $40 per pound for the bivalves in New York — Shenzhen prices. He swears the clam is worth it. “It does not smell the least bit fishy, it’s rather bright, briny — a clean ocean smell,” Moreira says. “It is too delicate even for citrus, so I don’t ceviche it. I serve it raw with a touch of soy, olive oil, maybe a little wasabi. I love it for its crunchy texture as much as its flavor. Geoduck is my favorite thing.”