For five generations, Paul Taylor's family has grown clams and oysters on South Puget Sound, building the largest shellfish company on the...
STRETCH ISLAND, Mason County —For five generations, Paul Taylor’s family has grown clams and oysters on South Puget Sound, building the largest shellfish company on the West Coast along with friendships in the environmental community.
But these days when Taylor walks the tideland on Stretch Island, 17 miles northeast of Shelton, he steps past fields of white cylinders, like neatly planted flower vases, that have put Taylor Shellfish directly at odds with some of its historic allies.
Inside each pipe lives a tiny specimen of the ridiculous-looking geoduck (pronounced gooey-duck), a giant clam with a siphon that can grow as long as a man’s forearm. Recent advances in cultivating the valuable bivalve, along with burgeoning Asian markets, have suddenly made miles of mudflats produce a crop worth as much as $900,000 an acre.
That has alarmed some other beachfront landowners and environmentalists, who fear an unchecked gold rush of geoduck farms, even though the environmental impacts are yet unknown.
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The disagreement is setting up a collision of cultures as the rapid suburbanization of Puget Sound shores meets a century-old industry that has suddenly tapped into new technology and a global economy.
“We looked at the beaches that this had been done to and we thought, ‘No way,’ ” said Laurie Brauneis, a Key Peninsula waterfront resident who helped start a group to fight geoduck farming. “It seemed like it wouldn’t be good for our land values to have a totally ruined beach.”
Responds Taylor: “For people to come out and say we’re destroying the Sound, that’s offensive to me.”
Taming the beast
Only a decade ago, geoduck agriculture was a primitive and speculative enterprise.
So to gather the giant clams, often eaten raw as a delicacy at Asian restaurants in the U.S. and Asia, divers had to plunge into deep, frigid Puget Sound water and blast the seafloor with water hoses to loosen the clams.
When farmers tried to grow geoducks, the free-swimming larvae and the tiny “seed” clams frequently just died in the tanks. Some pioneers resorted to children’s wading pools filled with sand to grow the clams big enough to survive in the wild. But when they planted them in the tideflats, they became meals for crabs and seagulls.
Then researchers and farmers hit upon a formula that worked: sections of PVC pipe are sunk into tideflats and capped with mesh nets, protecting the clams for a couple of years until they can dig themselves deep into the sand.
Five to seven years after planting, workers use high-pressure water hoses to “liquefy” the beach into the consistency of quicksand, then reach down into the shoulder-deep slurry and pull out their prize.
Geoducks now can fetch $10.50 a pound wholesale, with a typical farmed clam weighing up to two pounds. Plantings can produce up to 52,000 clams per acre. Many of the clams are flying express to burgeoning markets in Japan and China, where a plate of geoducks can sell for $60.
“You could conceivably make a lot of money,” said Jim Gibbons, founder of Seattle Shellfish, a company specializing in geoduck farming in South Puget Sound.
“At worst benign”
Today, the soft sand and clean water in parts of South Puget Sound have become the center of interest for potential geoduck farming.
Roughly 200 acres of Washington tideflats, mostly south of Seattle, are now planted, or leased for future planting. Even the state Department of Natural Resources now plans to lease 250 acres of state tideland, mostly in Hood Canal and parts of South Puget Sound, for geoducks over the next decade.
In 2000, less than 1 percent of the geoducks harvested in Washington came from farms. Last year, more than 15 percent of the 5.6 million pounds of geoducks came from farms.
One big reason for the change is Taylor Shellfish.
At a hatchery on Hood Canal, the company raises many of the baby geoducks planted in Puget Sound and produces roughly half the farm-raised geoducks in Washington, where most of the world’s farmed geoducks comes from. The company owns or leases about 90 acres to raise them.
Taylor and other shellfish companies say the geoducks help improve water quality because they eat algae. And they dismiss notions that the farms will spread uncontrolled across the landscape. On the contrary, they say, there is a limited supply of the baby “seed” geoducks available and only certain beaches are suitable.
“We believe the environmental impacts are at worst benign, and at best they’re beneficial,” said Diane Cooper, the environmental-policy manager at Taylor Shellfish.
As Cooper spoke, one of the company’s Stretch Island neighbors, Cheryl Mazanti, strolled up as if on cue with her golden retriever, Buddy.
After watching her neighbors’ beaches fill up with geoduck tubes, she decided to lease her own tidelands to Taylor.
The tubes don’t bother her. She said she can only see them when the tide is particularly low. And then she just walks around them, waiting for the day the geoducks are yanked out and she collects as much as 10 percent of what they sell for.
“I don’t see any downsides of it,” she said.
“Long list of questions”
But in the coves and inlets throughout South Puget Sound, other residents such as Brauneis and her group, Save Our Shoreline, have been fighting back.
In the process, they are discovering a quirk of Washington history: It’s the only state on the West Coast that sold off tideland. Beaches that for years were treated as public are now suddenly filled with geoduck pipes.
Residents and environmentalists complain the pipes and netting occasionally break loose, littering the beach. They also wonder about the ecological impact of shooting pressurized water deep into the sand to harvest the clams. They fear it might harm eel grass and tiny crustaceans, worms and clams that rely on the beaches.
The influential environmental group People for Puget Sound recently demanded a state study of the environmental impacts of geoduck farming. It wants more limits on where the clams can be raised, including land-use permits. It also wants the state Department of Natural Resources to scale back its leasing plans.
“We need credible scientific information, and we do need a study to answer a long, long list of questions,” said Naki Stevens, the group’s program director.
They’re not without allies. In British Columbia, the government has banned new geoduck farms in tidelands until more questions are answered about the possible impacts on fish habitat.
Changing the rules
For now, Washington’s geoduck farmers are operating under local rules that often differ from county to county.
For instance, Pierce County requires shoreline-development permits that spell out what’s allowed and scrutinize the project for possible impacts. Others, such as Mason and Jefferson, don’t, industry experts say. The state Department of Ecology plans to recommend that all counties require a permit. But counties can ignore that advice.
With the emerging conflicts, Rep. Patricia Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, is working on legislation that would fund a study of the environmental impact and convene all the parties involved to craft uniform state regulations.
“It has grown into a potentially huge activity for Puget Sound and, as a matter of fact, for all intertidal waters on the West Coast,” Lantz said. “There is literally nothing of that significance that we would not think needed to have some state oversight.”
Until that happens, some geoduck-farm opponents want a moratorium on new farms. The growers say they welcome further studies but are wary of new bureaucracy.
For Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, the controversy represents a deeper issue, and one that can’t be legislated away: the clash between the traditionally rural shellfish industry and the increasingly crowded waterfront neighborhoods.
“Some people love a working waterfront; they think it’s cool,” he said.
“Other people think it’s a messy process, and you don’t want to see food grown on your beach.”
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com