Geoduck farming in Puget Sound: a brief history

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

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

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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