Neighbors fight geoduck farm in Washington’s shellfish heartland

For more than a decade, several Thurston County residents have fought to protect a beach from one of the shellfish industry’s cash cows — or more specifically, cash clams.

Known for their funny name and elephant trunk-like necks, the geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”) especially thrives along the South Puget Sound’s nutrient-rich shores.

This bizarre bivalve mollusk is a popular delicacy in Asian nations such as China, where geoducks can fetch more than $125 per pound during peak demand. Some say the phallic clams are aphrodisiacs.

Neighbors near Zangle Cove in the Boston Harbor area are more focused on the industrial farming practices — called geoduck aquaculture — that they say could threaten the health and public use of an otherwise open beach.

The site is smack dab in the heart of the world’s geoduck capital.

One property owner on Zangle Cove is ChangMook Sohn, who has approached Taylor Shellfish about staffing a proposed 1.1-acre geoduck farm on his private tidelands. Based in Mason County, Taylor Shellfish is the country’s largest shellfish farmer and harvests about 700,000 pounds of geoducks a year.

Sohn’s proposal has been tangled up in red tape and opposition for years, but has recently shown signs of moving forward. In May, Thurston County responded to Sohn’s application with a list of environmental conditions that the farm would need to satisfy to receive a permit.

The neighbors are appealing the ruling, officially called a mitigated determination of nonsignificance. Aside from environmental concerns, the neighbors say a geoduck farm will spoil more than just the beach’s natural beauty.

“This is traditionally a recreational beach,” said Kathryn Townsend, whose home abuts the cove. “Everybody uses the beach.”

Sohn, who at one time was the state’s chief economist and a candidate for state treasurer, declined to comment for this story. Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey said the company is interested in leasing Sohn’s land, but there is no agreement at this time.

Dewey said the company has provided technical help to Sohn, who has not farmed geoducks before.

“It’s so challenging to get new farms permitted,” Dewey said. “Taylor’s is one of the few that has the resources to get permits because opponents have made it so expensive and prohibitive to move through the process.”

Down on the farm

Washington is the world leader in geoduck aquaculture. The giant clams account for about 7 percent of the state’s commercial shellfish production and about 27 percent of the total value, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In 2013, the state generated about 1.6 million pounds of geoduck, which was valued at about $24.5 million.

Almost all of the geoducks come from the region south of Seattle and east of Hood Canal. The South Puget Sound accounts for about 37 percent of the state’s total shellfish production and 58 percent of the state’s overall $91.9 million shellfish value.

In the South Puget Sound, geoducks are the third most harvested shellfish after oysters and mussels, but represent about 44 percent of the region’s total production value. Fish and Wildlife reports that in 2014, wild geoduck harvest in South Puget Sound totaled 479,739 pounds with a value of $3.6 million.

The average price per pound on the docks is trending upward, from about $4 a pound in 2005 to more than $15 a pound today.

The most recognizable trait of a geoduck farm is the grid of plastic net-covered tubes that protect the seedlings for the first couple of years.

Eventually, these sedentary clams burrow deeper as their food-filtering siphons grow up to 3 feet long.

After five to seven years, geoducks are ready to harvest. The average geoduck weighs about 2 pounds, although state biologists report catching one that weighed more than 8 pounds. Wild geoducks are among the most long-lived animals with a lifespan that can reach 140 years or more.

Countless wild geoduck siphons poke out of the seaweed-coated sands during low tide on Zangle Cove, squirting bursts of water before slowly sinking below the surface.

About a quarter-mile east of Zangle Cove, a small crew took advantage of the low tide June 3 to dig up 350 to 400 pounds of geoducks. One at a time, the geoducks are extracted with the aid of a handheld water pump.

By the end of the day, the harvest would be sold in Tacoma for $9 to $16 a pound, then shipped alive to Asian markets. Multiple reports show that more than 90 percent of all harvested geoducks in the United States go to Asia, although the clams are sometimes sold by poachers on the black market.

Ian Child, owner of Sound Shellfish and a former biologist with the Squaxin Island Tribe, has been farming geoducks for more than a decade. Child’s crew dives for geoduck daily, regardless of the tide level. He said the busiest time of year is in January and February during Chinese New Year celebrations when people are more likely to splurge on geoduck.

Child has a small operation in which he leases the tidelands from a private homeowner; he said the stringent permit process has made expansion of his business unlikely.

Child said Zangle Cove would be a perfect spot to raise geoducks.

“The aesthetics are what people have a hard time with, not the actual farming of geoducks,” said Child, defending the clam’s water-filtering function as a benefit to the environment. “This is part of the solution, not part of the problem.”

But while geoducks are touted along with other shellfish as water cleansers, the farming of geoducks can have adverse effects on the ecosystem. For example, a 2015 study by the ICES Journal of Marine Science suggests that the plastic tubes and nets can affect foraging opportunities for birds and other animals by acting as a refuge for their prey, such as small crabs.

Plastic debris from the thousands of PVC tubes on a typical geoduck farm also can end up in the Sound.

Washington Sea Grant, a leading marine research organization based at the University of Washington, reports that geoduck harvests have minimal effect on water and sediment quality. The impact from geoduck aquaculture compares to the effects of “normal patterns of weather and ocean currents.”

The organization also reports that those petitioning against permits for geoduck farms often “failed to meet a burden of proof required to demonstrate the harmful effects of commercial aquaculture organizations. The only exception was a decision concerning the impact of aquaculture on existing eelgrass.”

According to a University of Washington study, geoduck farming leads to reduced size and density of nearby eelgrass, which is commonly found in estuaries such as Puget Sound. The harvest can decrease the sediment elevation and firmness within the geoduck farm, making it harder for eelgrass seedlings to thrive once they colonize the geoduck beds. The state prohibits any shellfish farming in established eelgrass beds.

In fact, eelgrass forms a basis for the appeal filed over the proposed geoduck farm on Zangle Cove. The appeal says the county has failed to “adequately consider the impacts of soil disruption, harvesting and harvest boats, and proximity to an eelgrass recovery site.”

The appeal also argues that Zangle Cove is protected under the county’s Shoreline Master Plan, and that a geoduck farm will hinder recreation on Zangle Cove for walkers, boaters and kayakers.

Zangle Cove’s Townsend said the neighborhood’s fight began in 2006 at a time when little was known about geoduck farms. She said the last thing neighbors want is for Zangle Cove to become a shellfish farming haven like Totten Inlet to the west and deter people from using the beach for recreation.

“They’re not thinking globally about this issue,” Townsend said of the proposal. “They’re willing to put a geoduck farm in front of this whole neighborhood.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869, @andyhobbs