Sunday, March 21, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Our Northwest

The Geoduck Chronicles -- How An Obscure Bivalve Became The Object Of International Desire


It matters to Asian seafood lovers, who pay retail prices up to $30 a pound to dine on gargantuan neck of Panopea abrupta, better known by its Nisqually Indian name of "gwe-duk," or "dig-deep": the geoduck.

That's "gooey-duck" to you newcomers.

Size matters to Northwesterners, who get bragging rights to the world's biggest burrowing clam. The geoduck can become an old-growth monster living more than 150 years and weighing up to 20 pounds.

Size matters, says Port Townsend naturalist David George Gordon, author of "Field Guide to the Geoduck" (Sasquatch, $6.95), because the flesh and shells of geoducks combined make up the greatest biomass of any animal in Puget Sound.

"If you had a pile of all the salmon, and all the seals, and all the orca whales, and all the everything, the geoduck pile would be the biggest," he explained.

There are an estimated 130 million geoduck clams of adult size (about 2 pounds or bigger) in what the state defines as its harvest zone - water between 18 and 70 feet deep. That doesn't count the clams in shallow or deep water (geoducks grow from the tide zone to depths of at least 350 feet). There are probably 300 million to 400 million adult geoducks in Washington total, estimated Ron Teissere, geoduck manager for the state Department of Natural Resources. That's more giant clams than there are people in the United States.

And size matters because despite the geoduck's taste, abundance and economic importance, it is the appearance of the geoduck that produces a certain kind of . . . awe. Curiosity. Wonder. Inadequacy.

Men gape. Women swoon.

Well, not swoon, exactly. They actually tend to gasp, snigger, gulp, snort and smirk. Because a geoduck looks like - that is to say it sort of resembles - what we mean here is that it has evolved into a shape reminiscent of . . .

You know.

And therein lies our fondness for the beast. Funny name, funny shape, funny squirt. It's funny, like raw oysters.

What is it with mollusks, anyway?

UNTIL RELATIVELY RECENTLY, much of what we knew about geoducks was summed up by "The Gooey Duck Song," a hymn to bivalves penned by Ron Konzak and Jerry Elfendahl:

Well, he hasn't got a front and he hasn't got a back,

He doesn't know Donald and he doesn't go quack,

Digga duck, digga duck, digga digga gooey duck . . .

The Evergreen State College in Olympia, being Evergreen, chose the geoduck as its mascot and adopted the motto Omni Extaris, Latin for "Let it all hang out." There's a granite sculpture of a geoduck in the gym lobby that Athletic Director Pete Steilberg describes as "somewhat phallic" and an official "Fighting Geoducks" fight song: "Go, geoduck, go, siphon high, siphon low . . . "

Most Northwesterners - having learned just how hard it is to dig out a gigantic clam buried two to three feet deep in mud or sand, under water - are content simply to laugh at it.

But not all, thanks to the Cold War. In the mid-1960s a Navy diver from Keyport named Bob Sheats, looking for a wayward test torpedo near Bainbridge island, realized that Puget Sound's muck below the low-tide line was a veritable forest of jutting, gulping, spewing, and utterly un-self-conscious geoduck necks. Adult clams can congregate in densities as thick as one geoduck every two square feet.

The state Fisheries Department (now Fish and Wildlife) confirmed the discovery and the Department of Natural Resources claimed ownership on the grounds that geoducks were buried in its mud. (DNR is caretaker for Washington's underwater lands.) Then the two agencies did what states do when they discover a new resource: wondered who they could sell it to.

The who initially were chowder companies, which paid as little as 10 cents a pound. Then Washington King Clam of Tacoma began marketing them in Asia and by 1980 accounted for 95 percent of the geoduck harvest. Here was this monster . . . thing, of incredible longevity, with a certain . . . charisma. Mediocre in chowder, it was actually quite good as sashimi. And it could be air-freighted to a continent newly flush with money. By the late 1980s, wholesale geoduck prices hit $8 and $10 a pound, geoducks were being sold in Asian restaurants for three times that, and divers were using high-pressure air hoses to blast geoducks free of bottom mud, the giant clams floating up like veritable $50 bills.

Money made the geoduck respectable. Even with the recent climate of economic crisis in Asia, the best geoducks wholesale for $6 or $7 a pound.

To keep the rest of us happy, half of the state's share of the geoduck money - it leases geoduck tracts at auction - goes into the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account. This is used for projects ranging from wetland preservation to new public docks and waterfront trails. Divers pay the state $3 a pound for the geoducks they harvest, earning Washington $6 million a year.

It's an American success story as meteoric as Jesse Ventura, Adam Sandler or But geoducks?

IT IS A TRUISM in journalism that when columnists begin writing about their pets, desperation has set in. The same could be argued of natural-history writers and burrowing clams.

The author would like to report that the geoduck is a noble and fascinating animal: brave, swift and smart, a triumph of natural selection and evolutionary grace. Something other than just big and vaguely suggestive.

Alas, geoduck drama peaks at conception and goes downhill (literally) from there.

Spawning is admittedly impressive. Mollusks are called "bivalves" not because of their siphon-tube jets, but because it's Latin for "two-door," referring to the hinged shell that encloses the animals. But their necks do have two main pipes, and a geoduck's plumbing is its raison d'etre. (Curiously, Gordon informs us that the clam's neck is more accurately its tail, since it represents what scientists consider the animal's posterior: You could say geoducks spend their life upside down.)

Geoducks eat and breathe by sticking this eye-catching appendage above the sand and sucking in water through one tube to extract its algae and oxygen. They spit water out the other. When algae seems particularly thick, geoducks seize the moment by releasing clouds of milky white sperm or grain-sized eggs from their exhalant tube like a coordinated chorus of geysers. Fertilization hinges on current and fate.

"They're like little undersea volcanoes spewing genetic material into the water," described state fisheries biologist Bob Sizemore, a diver. Females release as many as ten batches of eggs a year, or 50 million potential geoducks apiece. The ladies are fecund for a century, meaning they can produce a whopping 5 billion eggs in their lifetime.

Needless to say, you wouldn't want to write insurance policies on any one youngster's individual chances.

A fertilized egg becomes a floating larva propelled by waving tendrils called cilia, which work like oars. For up to four weeks the larva drifts and swims around, eating algae and being eaten. Then the survivors, having grown to the size of a grain of rice, settle to the bottom with the beginning of a shell.

The geoduck crawls with a developing foot, putting out threads to grip surrounding sand grains to help haul itself along. If it wants to float with the current the threads are released to wave in the flow and carry the clam like a parachute.

This is by far the most active and perilous stage of a geoduck's life. It roams to find suitable places to begin burrowing deeper and deeper, seeking refuge from crabs, sea stars, dog fish, otters and a host of other enemies. By the end of their second year the relatively few surviving geoducks are big enough to dig down to "refuge depth" of two to three feet below the surface, where few predators can reach them.

And that's about it. The clam keeps growing until it's so big that its shell can't close around it. (Our expert Gordon remarked that he's experienced the same phenomenon with his prom tuxedo.)

The geoduck's foot becomes so small in relation to its body - it looks like a pitiful gray polyp on the clam's "head" - that it can no longer dig or move. For the next century or more, our hero becomes the ultimate couch potato.

Your worst date is more exciting. Impeachment trials are less tedious.

By four years the adolescent clam is a harvestable two pounds. By 15 years it has reached its maximum size. It is relatively safe, insulated from temperature changes, and requires no energy to move or grow. It can subsist on remarkably little food and its body's few moving parts don't do much: Geoducks simply don't wear out. No one really knows how long geoducks can live, but annual bands in the shell walls showed one Vancouver Island specimen was 146 years old.

Personality? Well, geoducks have no brain, eyes, ears or, presumably, feelings. They are organic machines, all plumbing and pump.

A few geoducks from the state shellfish lab at Brinnon on Hood Canal were given parts for the filming of the movie "Snow Falling on Cedars," but they're the exception. Most lead lives of quiet anonymity.

IS THIS IT, THEN? Is that all there is to the geoduck story?

No. Gordon's book goes on for 48 quite fascinating pages. And we at The Times can add sex, money, violence and greed to the saga.

Sex first. Once wholesale geoduck prices multiplied as much as 100 times over two decades, the state and industry became interested in growing the clams artificially. Natural repopulation of a harvested bed can take 35 to 50 years, while artificial planting could cut the time needed for re-harvest to five years.

But how do you hatch a geoduck? The secret is a dark room, good food and soft music.

"They're sensitive to light, sensitive to temperature and sensitive to water," said state shellfish hatchery manager Amilee Caffey. To get the necessary squirt of eggs and sperm, adult geoducks are put in a tank in a dark room, fed a meal of the choicest algae, and serenaded by - yes, romance still exists - Hawaiian love songs.

The music was the idea of state fisheries biologist Hal Beattie, an impish sort who has pioneered methods of shellfish propagation.

Then scientists wait, sometimes for hours. "If they don't spawn after awhile it's time to break out the wine and candlelight," Beattie said. "By the time we finish the wine, we don't care anyway."

Caffey denied this story (a pity) and said scientists actually just try again the next day. Sooner or later they get enough fertilized eggs to start growing baby geoducks. The state's biggest tanks can hold 40 million geoduck larvae.

The original, not illogical plan, was to grow a bunch of baby clams and pitch them over the side of a boat. Unfortunately, crabs gobbled seeded geoducks as fast as the state hatched them. "We weren't planting, we were feeding," lamented Beattie. The state yanked the money from that experiment. Today, the empty concrete tanks of Brinnon are sad monuments to science unrequited.

Biologists persisted, however. In Washington, geoducks are now hand-planted on tideflats inside short lengths of protective PVC pipe covered with mesh that keeps out predators. Once the clams are big enough to dig to refuge depth, the pipe is removed and used again. In British Columbia, experiments are under way with a machine that plants geoducks below the low-tide mark and covers them with mesh.

Taylor Shellfish Farms of Shelton planted 3.5 million geoducks in pipe last year near Olympia. Its first few thousand pioneering 5-year-olds, about 2 pounds in weight, will be harvested this summer. They should bring top dollar, said Bill Dewey, company spokesman, because young geoducks tend to have whiter necks, which are highly prized in Asia.

WHICH BRINGS US to money, greed and violence. A prime geoduck of moderate weight can bring $100 in Hong Kong or Tokyo, which means the temptation to monopolize, poach and cheat can be irresistible. There were charges of rigged bidding in the early 1980s, and widespread poaching in a poorly regulated industry led to a federal investigation called "clam scam" in 1982.

A 1992 court decision recognizing Indian treaty rights to half the shellfish harvest led to protests when tribal members first joined the gold rush about three years ago.

And in 1997, a Las Vegas shellfish broker pleaded guilty to putting out a $5,000 contract to have a rival beaten up by a 300-pound geoduck diver, an assault that never took place but is awesome to imagine. Last year six divers and seafood brokers were arrested in a new black-market investigation.

In response to all this the state has increased its harvest supervisory staff from two to 11 people, and DNR's Teissere promises the fishery today is "the most supervised fishery in the state and maybe in the world."

Tribes have also stepped up enforcement. According to Tom Hayes, shellfish manager for the Jamestown S'Klallam tribe near Sequim, native Americans now dive for 1.5 million pounds of geoducks annually, earning $7.5 million in gross revenue.

The policing hasn't halted criticism of the geoduck fishery. Property owners complain the air compressors on boats are noisy and that what Washington has invented amounts to underwater clear-cutting: mining of underwater clams that strips a bed, destroys other mud-dwelling marine life, fills the water with disturbed sediment and leaves behind a wasteland that might not recover for half a century.

Some divers and critics warn that Washington is making the same mistakes with geoducks it made with timber and salmon: overharvesting of the oldest and best clams, poor replanting, hatchery production that risks genetic weaknesses, and so on. "They manage it strictly for economics, not for the resource," complains diver John Lentz, who has been harvesting geoducks since 1983. He points out British Columbia's annual rate of harvest is 1 percent of its geoduck population while Washington's is 2.7 percent.

DNR's Teissere counters that B.C. counts all geoducks in its calculation while Washington counts only the third or so of the clams that are at the right depth to be economically harvested. Fisheries managers have done a mathematically impressive stock analysis, and University of Washington scientists are studying clam genetics to avoid mistakes.

ABOUT THE ONLY party that isn't yelling is the geoducks. "People are grouchy over salmon," Gordon said. "They have this `X-Files' paranoia we'll have the same problems with geoducks."

Lentz makes one point none would disagree with: Geoduck harvesting is hard, cold, dangerous work. Divers draw breathing air through hoses that can periodically kink, they struggle with high-pressure hoses to break the clams loose, and work in a murky twilight.

Yet a good diver can average 500 to 1,000 pounds a day and Lentz has had days of 4,000-pound catches. Even at the diver catch rate of 35 or 40 cents a pound, that's good money.

The growing harvest certainly suggests that the geoduck has yet to receive its full due in our Northwest. Here is the mightiest saltwater animal (in biomass, at least) of our marine ecosystem and where are its bronze statues, thrusting toward the sky? Why, when geoducks crowd the markets of Asia, do prodigious specimens not confront shoppers in the aisles of Safeway? You can find geoducks at Uwajimaya, yes. But they've become rare even in the Pike Place Market.

May we modestly suggest gubernatorial recognition, expensive public relation campaigns, geoduck queens and a geoduck look-alike contest? Let the world's biggest burrowing clam become the proud symbol of our Northwest id.

But dig one? Nah. Too gwe-duk.

William Dietrich, author and former Seattle Times reporter, writes Our Northwest for Pacific Northwest magazine. Harley Soltes is staff photographer for the magazine.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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