Monday, January 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'Duck' is a misnomer for bountiful 'King Clam'

Special to The Seattle Times

Hunting 'ducks'

Before you get your feet wet, check the state Shellfish Hotline at 1-800-562-5632, or go online: make sure there are no pollution alerts.

And consider packing a "geoduck gun," a long, thin metal tube. Once you locate a geoduck, jam the tube into the sand. Twist it, rock it, and drive it deep enough to reach the geoduck. Although it will quickly withdraw its siphon when disturbed, keep in mind that it can't move. Persistent digging will be rewarded. If you decide not to keep your bivalve prize, be sure to return it to its hole, siphon up, at an appropriate depth.

The ungainly geoduck is the ultimate couch potato of Northwest clams.

The prized shellfish — so tasty in chowder and prized in Asian markets — is a lump beneath the silt, doing, well, practically nothing. Which may explain why the "King Clam" lives 100 years or more and grows to epic size. It never moves.

Long the butt of regional jokesters, and known for startling squeamish tourists, the geoduck has found a measure of respect for its tuna-like flavor and scientific utility.

Just like trees, its shell forms a ring for each year of life. When sea temperatures rise and food is abundant, the bands are bigger. By studying the rings, researchers can reconstruct ocean climate trends, useful in the study of why salmon, for example, spawn in wildly varying numbers from year to year.

Geoducks also are the largest burrowing clam in the world — so large that when fully grown they can't withdraw into their shell. They spend almost their entire life stuck in the mud.

But abundant they are. Within the waters of Puget Sound there are an estimated 500 million pounds of geoduck — the largest biomass of any marine animal in the region.

Maybe it was their productivity or survival skill that attracted Evergreen State College students to adopt the geoduck as a school mascot. Their chant goes something like: "go, geoduck, go; siphon high, siphon low... "

Of course, they pronounce it goo-ee-duck to mimic the original Nisqually Indian pronunciation of gwe-duc, which means "dig deep."

According to Suquamish tribal legend, geoducks and all clams were banished to the ocean silt by the rest of the animal kingdom because they were insatiable gossips. The geoducks couldn't kick the bad habit, though, and that's why they "spit" when uncovered — they're trying to clear their siphons of the water they ingest while gossiping underwater.

Maybe geoducks just have something to say. After all, the oldest recorded geoduck lived to 163 years old, and the heaviest weighed in at 14 pounds. Such behemoths are typically at the end of a life cycle, which begins with a series of dramatic changes, according to David George Gordon's book, "Field Guide to the Geoduck."

Geoducks are broadcast spawners. A female geoduck produces about 5 billion eggs in her 100-plus years — in comparison, a woman produces about 500 viable eggs. No surprise that clams are purported to have aphrodisiac qualities.

About 24 hours after sperm and egg become a fertilized egg, a barely visible larva forms. The tiny infant clam floats in plankton for about two days before it grows a parachutelike velum to help it swim. The velum is the beginning of a shell.

Half the size of a grain of salt, the larva is carried by waves and tidal currents for two to four weeks as it feeds on plankton. The unlucky ones become nutritious snacks for larval fish and planktonic animals. Survivors grow a more advanced shell and drop out of the water column to begin clam life in earnest.

By the time it's the size of a pencil eraser, the juvenile geoduck's foot is big enough to dig — and that's when the clam goes underground.

At 2 years, it will have dug itself about two feet into the seafloor, out of reach of most predators. At adulthood, geoducks live three to four feet into the marine sediment. But at this point, the foot is tiny compared with the rest of the geoduck's body, and the geoduck is stuck in place for life.

Scientists speculate that the geoduck's longevity is the result of low wear and tear: A geoduck sucks in plankton, spits out the refuse and, periodically, ejects sperm or eggs. That's about it, unless it happens to fall prey to one of its few predators. In Alaska, sea otters and dogfish have proved able to dislodge an adult geoduck, and sea stars can grab an unwary siphon and slowly nibble away at it.

Although the scientific value of the geoduck is a relatively recent development, it's no secret that they're edible. Most people compare the taste to a rubbery Albacore tuna. Once commonly found in chowder, geoduck is now considered sashimi. Coastal Indians also ate them fresh as well as smoked like salmon.

When white settlers arrived in Elliott Bay, starting about 1851, they agreed that the geoduck was tasty. But in time, over-harvesting put the species in a tailspin: By the 1940s geoducks were rare on Washington beaches.

In the 1960s, Navy divers recovering dummy practice torpedoes in Puget Sound found something else instead — huge fields of geoducks. State fishery staff investigated the newly discovered population, and found geoducks beyond the tide lines, living farther from shore than previously realized.

In 1970, the first geoduck fishery in the world was created, but demand for the semi-forgotten clam was low. Today, they sell in Shanghai for up to $30 a pound.

Their value has helped the geoduck fishery become the most closely regulated fishery in the state. It has become a $40 million-a-year industry. Department of Natural Resources staff are on the water continually, monitoring harvests.

"It would be easier to smuggle heroin in these boats than geoducks," said Peter Adolph, a 12-year veteran of the geoduck fleet and captain of the Lady Erin, which harvests geoducks for the Alaska Ice Seafoods Corp.

About a year ago, five men were arrested after an 18-month investigation. The arrests broke up what state officials called the largest organized illegal geoduck- and crab-harvesting operation in Washington. The men were thought to have harvested the clams at night and then shipped them to markets across the United States and in Asia.

But by all accounts, monitoring largely succeeds, through the Department of Natural Resources staff's vigilance and the cooperation of all involved parties — tribal harvesters, tribal monitors, tract-site neighbors and commercial harvesters. The state also takes in about $6 million a year from the geoduck fishery.

For a sedentary creature that almost no one could call beautiful, that's not bad.

Kennan Knudson is a former Seattle Times intern.


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