Editors note: This is the fourth and final article in our geoduck series. The first focused on the hearing for a new farm on the west side of the Key Peninsula, the second reviewed the history of geoduck aquaculture and the third concentrated on the environmental impact.

Washington is the largest producer and exporter of geoducks, and although the economics are far from transparent, there is a fascinating story to be told. Developing technology, policies affecting harvesting, turning a low-end product to a luxury food item and a growing Chinese economy all play a part in this tale.

The early years

The industry did not start until after 1967, when abundant subtidal wild beds were discovered, particularly in Washington and British Columbia. In Washington, quotas were established along with agreements with the tribes (though illegal harvesting was common and continues to be a concern).

In Canada, the harvesting was initially derby-style and the pounds harvested jumped from 2,500 tons in 1976 to nearly 8,000 in 1988. As concerns grew for the viability of wild stock, Canada changed to a quota system and harvesting fell to a low of 3,000 tons in 1995.

The target market at the time was almost exclusively in Hong Kong, and this market was reached via Vancouver, B.C. Initially geoduck was sold as a canned food and ex-vessel prices were just 50 cents a pound.

Profitability grows

As the harvest plummeted in the mid-1990s, geoduck also began to be marketed as a fresh luxury food. Prices skyrocketed and by 1995 it was selling for $7.50 per pound. Wild harvests have remained fairly constant since 2000 (between 3,500 and 4,000 tons). Wild geoduck are now also harvested in Mexico and Alaska. Prices have risen with ex-vessel geoduck now worth $15 a pound or more and $30 for fresh.

As prices increased, the technology of farming developed. By 2002, the first farms in Washington sold their products.

Shipping infrastructure also evolved and while in the early years 90 percent of geoducks were shipped through Canada, Washington now ships directly to Hong Kong and China.

As China’s economy expands, the taste for geoduck has shown no sign of slowing. Prices continue to rise and the market has moved from Hong Kong to include most major Chinese cities.

The industry’s role

Washington, like any other state, needs industry to survive. Businesses pay salaries, purchase goods in order to operate, and pay taxes and fees. In turn, employees buy goods, pay taxes and thus add to the economy.

The shellfish industry, according to the 2013 report by Northern Economics, spent $101.4 million and generated $184 million in output. It was responsible for 1,900 direct jobs and an additional 810 jobs, indirectly.

This is not an enormous piece of the state economy (the landscaping industry is responsible for a total of 43,000 total jobs (direct and indirect) and sales of $2.4 billion. And Boeing, Amazon and Costco surely dwarf shellfish.

But Kevin Decker from Washington Sea Grant noted, “The counties where aquaculture is important are largely rural. For those counties this industry is important. In addition, Washington wants to diversify its industry.”

The money at stake

Farming geoducks requires a significant investment. Land must be leased. Seed must be purchased; protective equipment must be purchased and installed, monitored regularly and then removed when the geoducks have dug deep enough to elude predators. And finally, after five to seven years, they must be harvested using high-volume, low-pressure hoses brought in via barge.

Exactly how much it costs to farm geoducks is not clear. Based on a survey of the Pacific Shellfish Growers Association, the average cost to farm all shellfish is about $5,000 per acre per year. But, as Decker noted, geoduck probably costs more to farm than other shellfish, and there is likely variation in costs depending on the size of the company. He observed that companies have been hesitant to share their data —it is a small and competitive industry.

How much money is made at harvest is a bit more transparent. The Department of Natural Resources, with numbers from 2004, estimated that an acre would produce $750,000 per acre every five years. Prices have increased since that time by at least fifty percent, so an estimate of $1,000,000 every five years would be fairly conservative.

How the Key Peninsula fits in

Currently about 200 acres are leased in the state for geoduck aquaculture. On the Key Peninsula, 22.3 acres are currently approved for farming, with 2.5 acres not yet planted. An additional 16 acres were approved and are under appeal, and several other permits are pending. Burley Lagoon, immediately to the north of the Key Peninsula, is the site of two other pending permits for a total of 35.6 acres (including a mixed one for geoducks and manila clams).

All current geoduck farms in Pierce County are on the Key Peninsula. Though the county accounts for only 0.5 percent of all aquaculture in the state, it provides 11 percent of all geoduck sites, and if other permits are approved, that percentage may grow.

According to data from the Pacific Shellfish Growers Association, about 10 percent of aquaculture employees come from Pierce County, so it appears that the industry brings jobs at least at the county level.

If an average acre of farming brings in $200,000 a year ($1 million every five years), then the harvest on the peninsula is probably sold for about $4 million. This calculation does not take into account the costs of farming, the fact that some acreage remains dormant each year or that the clams may be harvested at longer intervals. But by any measure, this is a significant amount of money.

Less tangible impact

If it is difficult to get accurate figures for the expenses and income of the industry, it is probably even more difficult to measure the economic impact along other lines.

Property values are affected but the impact seems to be very site-specific and difficult to measure.

The industry touts the beneficial effects of filtering to water quality but those effects are overstated, according to Jim Brennan, a marine biologist who specializes in nearshore matters.

Brennan worked as a marine habitat biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and then served as the senior ecologist for King County.

“We can’t necessarily draw conclusions from the East Coast data on oysters,”he said. “Even there, it has been determined that bivalves filtering the water is not the solution to pollution. Clear water is not necessarily ‘clean’water.”

Other benefits mentioned include fostering of stewardship with increasing awareness of the importance of water quality and serving as an ecosystem health indicator. But, as Brennan notes, there are minimal data to support those assertions and it is difficult to include them in calculating any economic benefit. The long-term consequences on the environment are still unclear as well.

What next?

Just as the environmental impact of geoduck farming continues to unfold, the economic impact story is evolving. Two studies to better understand the economics of the geoduck industry are due to be completed in June.

Decker, of Washington Sea Grant, is working with the Pacific Shellfish Institute to collect accurate data about costs and economic contribution. Katharine Wellman of Northern Economics is working on a study to help with marine spatial planning, a project that encompasses all fishing, shipping, shellfish and any activity that uses the waterways —which is of interest to the state departments of natural resources, ecology and health.

Source: Much of the economic history comes from a report produced by Northern Economics for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources; from a report for Pacific Shellfish Institute by Northern Economics and from a paper currently under review at the journal Marine Policy, From Cannery to Culinary Luxury: The Evolution of the Global Geoduck Marketby Gina Louise Shamshak and Jonathan R. King.

The KP News welcomes your comments. Please send them to editor@keypennews.com.

Want more info?

The next Shoreline Master Plan hearing is at the Peninsula High auditorium on Monday, Feb. 2 at 5:30 p.m. For details, go to the Pierce County Department of Land Services at piercecountywa.org/index.aspx?NID=956. More information can be found by visiting Marine Spatial Planning msp.wa.gov/learn/about, the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat (regular updates) at coalitiontoprotectpugetsoundhabitat.org along with Washington Sea Grant studies at wsg.washington.edu.

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