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Sara Thompson

Sara Thompson

Wednesday, 31 December 2014 12:46

Geoduck Farming: Environmental Issues

Editors note: This article is the third of a four-part of a series on geoduck aquaculture. A final article on the economics of geoduck farming will be published next month.

What exactly is the environmental impact of geoduck farming? Oyster, manila clam and mussel aquaculture had been a part of Puget Sound for decades, but the ability to grow geoducks is a relatively new development.

As new farms were established in the mid 2000s, some illegally, communities worried that their shorelines were at risk. Concerns ranged from aesthetics and loss of recreational beaches to loss of habitat and the risks of PVC tubes used to protect the clams. 

In addition to worries about the immediate impact of a geoduck farm on a local community, what might be the long term consequences? What are the cumulative effects of larger numbers of farms over decades?

The state Legislature passed a bill in 2007 establishing a fund to study the impact of geoduck aquaculture over the next six years. Sea Grant, a program that is a collaboration between the University of Washington and the federal government, was chosen to commission the research. A literature review and research report were published in late 2013 and an update on new research directions was published last month.

Geoduck farms cause changes in the local beach. But is change equivalent to harm? Are species at risk? As is true with most scientific research, answers are rarely black and white, and most studies lead to further questions.

Aesthetics are an ongoing concern. Most pictures shown by opponents to demonstrate the sight of PVC tubes that have become dislodged and litter beaches are from 2006 and 2007. Practices have improved to minimize the loss of tubes, and permits require crews to clean the beach after storms. The industry has developed mesh tubes that are less visible and dont require nets over the tops.

Aquaculture advocates state that the tubes (used for the first year or two to protect young clams from predators) are visible only 5 percent of the time, but that probably underestimates the actual visual experience.

Low tides, when the tubes are visible, are at night during the winter but in daytime during the summer. This means that they are visible roughly 20 percent of the time during spring and summer months.

Opponents decry the trapping of birds in nets, though this is a relatively rare occurrence.

According to experts testifying on behalf of Longbranch Shellfish at a Shoreline Hearing Board appeal, PVC tubes appear to be relatively safe. The material is inert and sediment near the tubes has not shown any evidence of microplastics or leaching of toxins.

There is currently little or no evidence that the tubes or debris from the tubes (which sinks to the bottom of the Sound) would harm fish or birds. The actual volume of debris on the floor of the Sound is unknown, however.

The Sea Grant research studies looked at the impact of geoduck farming on the water, sediment, eelgrass and animals living in the sediment and at the surface. The studies were limited in overall scope, and although substantial negative impacts were not seen, there were clearly some differences between geoduck farms and adjacent beaches. Further research was recommended.

Laura Hendricks, of the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound, continues to be concerned about the impact of PVC debris and microplastics as the volume of farming expands. Wayne Daley, a former Boeing engineer who has a fisheries degree and has worked as a consultant since 1996, is critical of the Sea Grant-sponsored studies. He said that until the impact on forage fish (herring and sea lance) and phytoplankton on the near shore is understood, there should be a hold on additional farms.

How much aquaculture is too much? Are there any limits on the amount of shoreline that could be farmed?

Ty Booth and Dave Risvold of the Pierce County Land Panning and Services Department noted that although any landowner who owns tidelands could apply for an aquaculture permit, there are practical limitations.

First, there are physical characteristics of a given beach that may make geoduck farming in particular impossible. Second, the steps involved in applying for a permit are onerous, particularly for individuals.

The Department of Ecology recently informed counties that the process must include a conditional use permit which requires review and approval by Ecology. But 60 percent of Washington tidelands are privately owned and there is no legislation that absolutely limits the number of farms in Puget Sound.

Booth notes, though, that between 1997 and 2005, six permits for geoduck farms were approved. Since that time, three have been approved by Pierce County and two are under appeal. Nine permits are pending, although some of those applications are old and may not be pursued.

Cumulative impact looking at the effects of aquaculture over multiple harvests and taking into account the increased number of acres farmed is now the key issue. It is included in shoreline master plans to assure that there is no net loss of ecological functions. No net lossis not defined in black and white terms, however.

Explained Perry Lund, Southwest Region unit supervisor for the Department of Ecology, When we look at any permit, we have to look at the whole picture, and look not just at the specific project. We must take into account mitigation, restoration and the broader planning concepts within the Shoreline Master Program.

Any project, whether it is putting in a septic system, a dock or bulkhead, or starting a geoduck farm, will cause a change but we want to assure as much as possible that it does not lead to a substantial negative impact,Lund said.

What comes next? Work through Sea Grant continues, though it depends on funding from the state Legislature. Larry Seaquist wasinstrumental in getting recent funding for aquaculture research, and it is not clear who will continue to advocate for money since he lost his legislative seat in the lastelection.

Washington Sea Grant researchers are now concentrating on developing models to understand the effects of aquaculture on the food web; addressing thephysical, biological and chemical factors interacting with aquaculture (including development of an early warning system for ocean acidification); fullyassessing the economic impacts of aquaculture and spatial planning (extent of current farms, data on ecological sensitivity and otherconsiderations such as water quality, physical constraints, designated areas for other uses).

P. Sean McDonald, PhD, a UW researcher working with the Sea Grant program, said, The Puget Sound shore is a hard place for theanimals that live there. Storms, surf and flooding may be as disruptive to their environment as geoduck farming. But weneed to understand if there is a tipping point, where the effects over time or due to increased extent are causing harm to our beaches.

We are using the data from the Sea Grant-sponsored geoduckprojects to model how much aquaculture might be too much or whether thereis a tipping point beyond which aquaculture expansion could affect the environment more broadly,McDonald said.

The Lakebay Marina is once again becoming a destination location and owners Mark and Cindy Scott have plans to honor its historic past as they slowly renovate the buildings.

They purchased the property in 2012, opened for business in April 2013, and have welcomed Key Peninsula residents as well as boaters, who have begun arriving in large numbers during the summer.

The pier was initially built to accommodate the Mosquito Fleet steamboats amassed by Conrad Lorenz and his sons to ship lumber from the Key Peninsula.

In 1928, the property became home to the Western Washington Cooperative Egg and Poultry Association. The co-op had feed for animals, as well as tractor and other equipment, and stored dairy products mostly eggs headed to Tacoma. In the 1950s, as roads improved, the last of the Mosquito Fleet retired, and the co-op moved from Lakebay.

At that time the location was transformed to a boating destination. Docks were built, a large dance floor was added to the building, and yachts began to motor to visit.

Small cabins were built on shore and it became the Lakebay Marina and Resort. The Hostetler family purchased and ran the business starting in the late 1960s.

When Mr. Hostetler died, his eight children continued to operate the marina, but they all had busy lives and competing priorities Mark Scott was in contact with them for eight years before they all agreed to sell to him. He remembers coming to the café as a child and wanted to see the place come back to its unique presence on Puget Sound.

The new owners have been slowly restoring the property, learning the restaurant trade and scheduling wine and beer tastings featuring local wineries and breweries. They have also hosted a movie premier and musical events. And they have established an annual tradition: Every Memorial Day Weekend, they host a wine tasting from the Mosquito Fleet Winery and free clams.

I know the marina business. Running a restaurant involved a steep learning curve,Scott said.

The owner of Jimmy Ds in Poulsbo initially helped him open the restaurant and they are now running it on their own. His top priority: a top-quality burger ground chuck and a toasted buttered bun.

His eyes light up as he describes the local tomatoes from My Mothers Garden. They also serve fish and chips. As they succeed in offering consistent quality with these offerings, they plan to expand the menu.

Future plans

Scott says the marina is full and working well. He hopes to build and install a pump-out barge. This is a program coordinated with the Army Corps of Engineers and state parks, offering a service to boats to encourage them to pump out their black waterat the barge for disposal rather than dumping it into the Sound.

The Scotts have refurbished a garage and they will soon replace the roof and windows and repair the siding on the parsonage house. They plan to move into the house within a year or so, once their son graduates from high school on Bainbridge Island.

The house was built in about 1920 by Dolly Caspary, the Lakebay postmaster. In the early 1930s, Dr. Johnson, an osteopath who delivered several local babies, lived there. It later served as the parsonage for the Lakebay Community Church. 

The three small cabins on the property have been left standing so that when they are replaced, the permitting process will be simpler. There is one rental cabin now available and the Scotts hope to improve the camping and RV sites.

The restoration and maintenance are all costly, though Scott emphasizes that the marina and resort is a very sustainable business. It is maintenance of the infrastructure such as the pilings that is especially expensive.

He hopes to get recognition as a historic site, either at the county or at a national level. This would assure that when he and his wife are no longer owners, the establishment would continue to play a central role in the community. And it might also help provide funding sources for preservation and restoration.

The Scotts invite customers to visit. Summers are very busy, but there is plenty of room at the counter for a great burger and fries this winter.  

Winter hours are 5-9 p.m. on Fridays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. For information about events, rentals and services provided, visit

Last month, the Pierce County Hearing Examiner approved Taylor Shellfishs permit to establish a geoduck farm at the Haley property. (Read original article online at

Whether that is seen as good news or bad depends on ones perspective. To Taylor Shellfish and the Pierce County Department of Land Services, this is good news — encouraging a sustainable industry that appears to do little, if any, environmental harm and fits with the state and local mandates of preferred use of shorelines.

To local activist Laura Hendricks of the  Coalition to Save Puget Sound, this is bad news, one more step in the goal of the shellfish industry to ultimately farm along the entire available coastline. Her group will appeal the decision at the state level, as they have every decision to approve such permits.

“The shellfish industry is greedy,” she said.

Barb Schoos, who with her neighbors formed Longbranch Shellfish, was excited to put their high-bank beach to work. She had read about the positive impact of geoducks on water quality, knew that the tubes that protect the new clams are visible only during low tides and that they are pulled after about 18 months when the clams are deep enough. She felt this would be a great way to bring in retirement income.

They plan to plant about a half acre each year over five years. She had heard plenty of negativity about geoduck farms. In fact, the permitting process was put on hold while Pierce County looked at all the evidence available. The permit was approved and has passed two environmental appeals. The plan is to plant the first “crop” next spring. 

“If you dont have a stake in this, it is easy to jump on the negative bandwagon,” Schoos said.

But after looking at all the studies, she is convinced that this is an environmentally responsible way to use tidelands.

“If I find out that this farm is not a net positive for our water and beach, I will be the first to close it down,” she said.

Until 50 years ago, geoducks were a well-kept secret of the Pacific Northwest — harvesting was limited to low tides and Herculean-level digging. Then in 1960, a Navy diver searching for lost torpedoes discovered beds of them deep in Puget Sound.

The state auctioned the rights to harvest the clams. One harvester, Brian Hodgson, made forays to the Far East, ultimately developing a market there. He also became a kingpin in geoduck shenanigans and ultimately pled guilty in the 1980s to stealing a million pounds of the now-valuable commodity. Illegal activity on a smaller scale continues, with one man recently sentenced.

The actual farming of geoducks has been possible for less than two decades. In the 1980s, biologist C. Lynn Goodwin and colleagues working at a state lab produced baby clams in tanks. They were worried that ongoing harvesting could have a serious impact on the geoduck population. It took 10 years to discover how to transplant them into beaches and protect them from predators — using PVC pipes planted a foot apart and topped by netting for the first 12 to 18 months until the clams dig deep enough to be safe.

Once the technology was developed, geoduck farms were established on privately owned tidelands (60 percent of Washington state tidelands are privately owned), mostly leased to shellfish companies. By the mid-2000s, the number of farms had grown significantly and environmental and local citizen groups raised an alarm.

“Ive always loved wildlife but was not an environmentalist,” Hendricks said of her early involvement. “My background is in economics. When I found out there were plans for a geoduck farm in front of my place on Henderson Bay, I looked into what that entailed and I was horrified.”

She went to visit Totten Inlet, where shellfish aquaculture — primarily clams and oysters — has been in full force for decades. It is the most densely farmed area in Puget Sound. As she approached by boat, she noticed that as they neared the inlet, the density and diversity of wildlife plummeted.

Many local shoreline advocacy groups formed, including the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound, to try to limit the expansion of the industry and to fully understand the environmental impacts. “This has been a team effort,” Hendricks said.

Pat Lantz, then the state representative from Gig Harbor, sponsored legislation in 2007 that led to funding of research on the impact of geoduck farming (Sea Grant) and the creation of the Shellfish Regulatory Committee, and directed the Department of Ecology to develop Shoreline Master Program guidelines for geoduck aquaculture siting and operations.

Sea Grant findings were published in 2013.

“Our research program found that populations of some species are altered by geoduck aquaculture activities, but that the range of effects varies from modestly negative to modestly positive,” said Dr. Glenn VanBlaricom, one of the reports principal investigators. “We found no evidence that geoduck aquaculture is causing fundamental shifts in ecosystem-scale structure or function in Puget Sound.”

The Shoreline Management Act was initially passed in 1971 “to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the states shorelines.” It established the concept of preferred use, noting that to the maximum extent possible, the shorelines should be reserved for “water-oriented” uses, including “water-dependent,” “water-related” and “water-enjoyment” uses. Over the past 30 years, guidelines have been refined, but aquaculture is one of those water-dependent preferred uses.

In 2011 the Shellfish Initiative was passed.   Quoted directly from the Initiative:

“The Washington State Shellfish Initiative is a convergence of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) National Shellfish Initiative and the States interest in promoting a critical clean water industry. While the initiative supports Governor Gregoires goal of a “digable” Puget Sound by 2020, it also encompasses the extraordinary value of shellfish resources on the coast. As envisioned, the initiative will protect and enhance a resource that is important for jobs, industry, citizens and tribes…

The Puget Sound Partnership has targeted a net increase from 2007 to 2020 of 10,800 harvestable shellfish acres, which includes 7,000 acres where harvest is currently prohibited in Puget Sound.  However, the recent shellfish downgrade in Samish Bay is a reminder of the constant vigilance needed by landowners, businesses and local, state, federal and tribal governments to protect and restore shellfish beds. Such efforts also are required on the coast where there is considerable opportunity to enhance shellfish resources.

To restore and expand shellfish resources, Washington must renew its protection, restoration and enhancement efforts. These efforts will pay off in increased recreation, additional clean water jobs, and a healthier Puget Sound and coastal marine waters.”  

While heralded by many, those opposing growth of the shellfish industry saw this as further threat to unfettered expansion. “We have evidence that the goal of the industry is to have 70 percent of available shoreline be taken over by commercial shellfish farms,” stated Hendricks.

Diane Cooper, of Taylor, notes that the expansion feared by Hendricks is not possible. “One of the limiting factors in geoduck farms is the quantity of seed available to plant,” she said.

Dave Risvold, environmental biologist with Pierce County Department of Land Services, said he appreciates the work done by advocates in the early years resulting in taking a hard look at the impact of aquaculture on Puget Sound.

We don’t want to have the Totten Inlet level of density in shellfish aquaculture in Pierce County,” he said.

But, as a current example, the Haley property meets the Shoreline Management Act criteria. It is high bank with few nearby neighbors. 

“If not there, then where?” he asked.



Additional resources: The history of the geoduck industry came from two articles –– one from Audubon Magazine and one from the Smithsonian Magazine. 

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