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The Dark Side of Geoducks
Huge clams found in Washington’s Puget Sound are a hot food commodity—one that’s spawned a black market that keeps wildlife officials busy.

Geoducks are giant clams that live in Washington State’s Puget Sound.
Courtesy of Taylor Shellfish Farms

Lieutenant Ed Volz once snuck through the surf at dawn and boarded a boat called the Typhoon to bust a bunch of thieves he had been trailing for two years. Another time he flew to Las Vegas to nab a wanted mobster named Nichols DeCourville. He has stymied shady sushi salesmen and pinched New York businessmen. And he’s done all of the above in the name of geoducks.

Geoducks are massive clams that flourish in Washington State’s Puget Sound and sell for up to $100 apiece at restaurants in Hong Kong and Beijing. This market has spawned a lucrative illicit fishery in Washington that has attracted crooks from across the country and around the world. Volz heads a special unit in Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) that investigates people who steal and poach wildlife, but he spends the majority of his time on geoduck crimes.

“For the big criminals it’s a safe area to go into because it’s just viewed as fish and wildlife stuff,” says Volz. “In New York they probably don’t care much about Washington State’s fish and wildlife laws, but they care a lot about geoduck.”

Geoducks can weigh up to 15 pounds, can live as long as 160 years, and are found from the intertidal zone to water more than 300 feet deep. They dwell several feet below the ocean bottom; a long, fleshy siphon extends from their bodies through the seafloor. Geoducks range from Baja California to Alaska but are most common in British Columbia and Washington, where, according to WDFW estimates, there are as many as 674 million pounds worth of wild stock. (The lucrative geoduck market has also spawned a boom in geoduck farming. For a look at the pros and cons of geoduck farming in Washington State, see “Muddy Waters.”)

Puget Sound beachgoers have dug geoducks recreationally for more than 100 years. In the 1950s U.S. Navy divers discovered vast populations of subtidal geoducks, and in 1970 Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) joined with the WDFW to establish a commercial fishery. Rights to harvest were auctioned to the highest bidder. Geoducks sold for five or ten cents a pound at the time, and the undervalued meat was used in clam chowder on Seattle ferries.

Geoduck sashimi.
Courtesy of Taylor Shellfish Farms

In the late 1970s Japanese businesspeople began bringing geoducks across the Pacific, although that growing business was dampened by Japan’s economic collapse in the late 1980s. But by then the Chinese, too, were developing a taste for geoducks, a development supported by the end of the Cold War and the opening of cheap shipping routes across the Pacific. A geoduck harvested in Washington Thursday afternoon could be on a plane to Asia that evening and in a live tank at a restaurant in Hong Kong in time for Saturday dinner. Malaysia, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates all now import geoducks.

“You want to talk about free trade and globalization, geoducks are a really great example of how that worked,” says Jonathan King of Northern Economics Inc., an Alaska-based consulting firm that reports on the geoduck business. “You have people here who produce a nice-quality, live product and people over there who really appreciate the product.”

Coordinating the geoduck harvest involves a well-choreographed dance between the WDFW, the DNR, and the Washington Department of Health, which certifies that geoduck beds aren’t contaminated with paralytic shellfish poisoning and meet other sanitary requirements. The WDFW identifies harvestable beds; the DNR then selects which beds will actually be harvested. About a quarter of Washington’s estimated 674 million pounds of geoduck qualify for harvest, although the state limits the fishery to less than three percent of that. Geoduck divers must harvest at depths of between 18 and 70 feet.

DNR enforcement crews observe all harvests. Boat captains must keep scrupulous logs that detail personnel, location, and geoduck weigh-outs. No vessel can change location without notifying DNR officers. Periodically, DNR divers scrutinize beds to make sure harvesters haven’t strayed beyond designated boundaries and haven’t simply left substandard geoducks to die on the seafloor. At day’s end DNR officers board each vessel and weigh the day’s catch. Once the geoducks have been landed, wholesalers rush them to warehouses, where they are boxed in Styrofoam and gel ice and trucked to the airport for the next flight to Asia.

Enforcement of geoduck fishing regulations is further complicated by a 1994 federal court ruling that reestablished Washington Indian tribes’ right to 50 percent of the state’s shellfish harvest. More than ten tribes harvest geoduck and each has its own enforcement policy. All of which, Volz says, makes enforcement a true challenge: “We have different tribal regulations, state agencies butting heads, limited harvesting in some areas, broad harvesting in others, boats without lights stealing geoduck at night, Canadian harvesters coming to Washington to bid on nontribal tracts, goods leaving the state rapidly after harvest, a border with Canada that makes it difficult to track documents, and very few of us.”

Wholesalers truck geoducks back and forth across the border in an attempt to take advantage of continuously changing air cargo prices, making it hard to keep tabs on where the product originated. As of 2005 about 47.5 percent of the market came from British Columbia, 47.5 percent came from Washington, and 5 percent was from Alaska, according to King. He points out these numbers don’t include Mexico, where a less valuable geoduck exists—its siphons are thinner and more shriveled—but production there is uncertain. King’s figures do include farmed geoduck, which have increased in recent years, making Volz’s job even more difficult—the growth in farmed geoducks, less regulated than wild stock, makes it easier for poachers to disguise their illicit product.

How these numbers will shift as the taste for sushi grows in the United States or as consumption decreases in Asia because of the global economic slowdown is a much debated question, but the answer likely depends on what happens in China. “China is a huge country with more people with more money every day, and there are dozens of cities over a million that have no geoduck shipments at all right now,” says King.

More mouths hungry for geoduck can mean only one thing for Volz: more work. He’s up for the task, but not forever. “Unlike most law enforcement officers, we don’t work eight to five or ten to six or anything like that; we work anytime, anywhere—weekends, holidays, whatever,” Volz says. “It’s a very hard thing to teach. I’m old in my career; I have to really look for young bright officers that are willing to go the extra mile.”

There’s even an award-winning documentary about geoducks. To see a trailer for Three Feet Under: Digging Deep for the Geoduck Clam, click here.

 

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