Fueled by demand from China, prices for Northwest geoduck clams are soaring. Geoduck growers and legal harvesters are making big profits, while regulators worry that poaching is on the rise.

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Water laps against the Ichiban’s stern as Joe Seymour and Darren Ford, dive suits peeled to their waists, stack crazy-shaped clams into crates.

It’s hard to watch this careful arranging of fresh bivalves and not add up all the cash it represents.

A single pair of these gleaming mollusks sold at a Puget Sound dock could pay for an upscale Seattle dinner for two. A half-dozen sold in a Hong Kong grocery could fetch nearly enough cash to make a four-figure mortgage payment. Three milk crates of these shellfish purchased at a Shanghai restaurant could pay for a year of undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington.

Washington geoducks (pronounced “gooey ducks”), the strange, long-necked clams prized in Asia for their crisp, briny sweetness, long have been Puget Sound’s highest-value seafood. But a confluence of regional and global events recently has sent geoduck prices soaring far higher.

Where a perfect, pearly white, 2.5-pound geoduck once brought $20 at the dock, a similar clam in the past year sometimes sold for three times more. In a restaurant in China, where 95 percent of the region’s geoducks land, top-grade clams are selling for $100 to $150 or more — per pound.

“We’re really fortunate right now,” said diver Craig Parker, the Ichiban’s owner and a member, like his colleagues, of the Squaxin Island Indian Tribe. “A few years ago we’d be jumping up and down with excitement if we got $7 or $8 a pound. Today we’ll be getting twice that much.”

While the United States struggles with a weak dollar and a quarter-trillion-dollar trade imbalance with China, exotic-seafood sales have become one of the nation’s economic bright spots. Even Puget Sound’s small sea-cucumber export industry has seen prices double in a year.

And geoducks support a niche market unlike any other. With a neck that can snake 3 feet from its shell, this high-end seafood is popular for celebrations and banquets and with the business elite in parts of Asia where wealth — and demand — just keep climbing.

“Everything about geoduck is driven by China,” said Mark Schaffel, who raises farmed geoducks for Olympia’s Northwest Shellfish Company. “They’re really into it, they’ve got money, and there is no substitute.”

That means legal tribal divers like Parker, Ford and Seymour can take home more in a day than the average Washington resident makes in a month.

That also means authorities fear high prices are fueling a resurgence of illegal geoduck harvesting. State wildlife cops, as they have before, are fielding tips about smugglers working at night and secretly making off with scads of unreported clams. And recent underwater surveys suggest millions of dollars of geoducks have gone missing.

“Either we’ve gotten lucky and noticed more illegal activity, or the frequency of skulduggery has increased dramatically,” said Mike Cenci, deputy enforcement chief for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “There’s no doubt that the increased value is attracting a criminal element.”

Diving for ‘ducks

There’s certainly no shortage of money to be made legally.

On a sunny day this spring, bubbles rose to the surface near Parker’s boat, anchored east of the Kitsap Peninsula. His crew hauled in an orange net packed with clams while a diver 40 feet below used a spray hose to dig out more.

“If there’s a nice current flowing, it can keep the sediment from clouding around your face, and you can work faster,” Parker said. “But it’s the dislodging that takes the most time.”

Geoducks can live more than 150 years. They spend their lives packed into the muck of the seafloor, only the tips of their necks, called siphons, snaking up to the water. Wearing helmets and heavy boots and 70 pounds of weight, divers walk or crawl along Puget Sound’s bottom, using sprayers to loosen clams from their beds.

On a good day, divers may haul up 500 to 1,000 pounds of geoduck each. The five men this morning gathered a combined 1,500 pounds, enough after tribal taxes and boat fees to pay each man $5,000.

They ferried the geoducks to shore, where the clams were packed on a truck, then into coolers and taken to the airport and flown out that evening. Clams gathered from McNeil Island to Port Angeles may end up in a market in Guangzhou, China, in three days.

“We try our best to time it so we get the best price,” Parker said. “What can I say — we’ve all got bills to pay.”

Part of the wild rise in clam value is specific to the strange creature itself.

While smaller, similar species grow in New Zealand and South America, Panopea generosa is found in great size and quantity nowhere in the world outside bays from the central coast of Oregon to Southeast Alaska.

Northwest tribes have eaten geoduck for centuries. Nineteenth-century settlers cooked them, too, but the mollusks were never sold commercially until a Navy diver in the 1960s found millions below Puget Sound’s surface while hunting for lost torpedoes.

In the 1970s, an industrious seafood entrepreneur and a Japanese partner marketed the clams in Tokyo. Fifteen years later, Vancouver, B.C., seafood brokers sent geoducks to family in Hong Kong, where banquet food is prized for unique tastes, smells, texture and appearance. The new delicacy hit China as consumer culture exploded.

Geoducks are now baked, fried, boiled, sauteed or served as sushi, but are most popular blanched in a boiling broth.

A million pounds are grown and sold by shellfish companies on Puget Sound beaches every year. Another 4 million pounds of wild clams are harvested by divers. Washington supplies half the world’s geoduck, with the rest coming largely from Vancouver and Alaska.

A clam bubble?

Prices for the state’s clams have skyrocketed recently in part because a long winter stretch of harmful algal blooms in Alaska kept geoduck fishing shut down there for months. But the chief reason for the dramatic rise? China, where economic growth helped make geoduck seemingly recession-proof.

Seafood imports there are on the rise in part because the dollar is down amid the U.S. financial crisis — and because the Chinese have overfished their own waters. The Chinese government also is lowering seafood tariffs to try to spur consumption. And it dramatically improved highway infrastructure, speeding transport of live fish.

Once popular largely in the coastal south near Hong Kong, demand for geoduck has spread inland and north to places such as Beijing.

“All the evidence over the last few years is that the market is expanding in China because the number of people who can afford it has expanded,” said Michelle James, director of British Columbia’s Underwater Harvester’s Association, a trade group representing Vancouver geoduck divers.

Consider this: While global geoduck supply increased 113 percent between 1995 and 2010, China’s per capita real income rose nearly three times as much, according to a market report prepared for the Canadian government. The real price of clams in Chinese yuan actually declined 16 percent.

“There are a lot more people in the upper middle class who want to emulate the wealthy in Hong Kong and Shanghai — that’s the reality,” said Quentin Fong, a University of Alaska seafood marketing specialist.

That demand is driving other trends, too. The state tries to keep geoduck harvests sustainable by only allowing fishing on a few underwater “tracts.” It auctions the tracts like forest managers do timber harvests.

When word got out last year that clam prices again were spiking, new would-be entrepreneurs arrived in Washington state. These rookie buyers drove up prices in a bout of speculation.

“In the last few years we started seeing companies we’d never heard of, companies that had been formed a month before, companies with people in their 20s and 30s who were representing Chinese or Canadian buyers,” said Mike Chevalier, with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Auction prices late last year went so high that clams fetched more than $25 a pound at the dock — “that was a real moment of craziness,” Chevalier said.

But crazier shenanigans also were afoot.

Vanishing bivalves

State biologists swim geoduck tracts before and after fishing, counting clams. While the tracts won’t be fished again for decades, biologists periodically check in with some to see how fast clams grow back.

In the last year or so, they found a problem: About 800,000 pounds of clams were missing.

While geoducks were growing back fine in some areas, others nearby were void of clams, suggesting the problem wasn’t environmental. Some sites revealed signs of active digging — even though currents usually cover fresh geoduck holes in weeks, and there had been no legal fishing there for years.

In one inlet, “we were down about 250,000 geoducks from what we would expect to see,” said Bob Sizemore, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Since the discovery coincided with a rise in value, Sizemore suspects the problem is illegal harvesting.

“Poaching is very clearly a part of it — and in fact could be a very large part of it,” he said.

State wildlife agents last month seized thousands of pounds of geoduck after spot checks at the airport uncovered boxes of unlabeled clams. When authorities in another case inspected a geoduck warehouse, a driver rolled up in a van with more undocumented clams.

“We’ve had a few reports of boats out at night, boats that are acting suspiciously and their captains refusing to tell people what they’re doing,” said Sgt. Mike Hobbs, with state Fish and Wildlife’s special investigation’s unit. “When they’re approached they tell people to say ‘You didn’t see anything.’ “

There are active investigations under way, and the new state budget has money set aside for more geoduck crime fighters.

“The science and the field intelligence all tell us we’re losing a lot of product,” said Cenci, deputy chief of Fish and Wildlife. “There are a lot of legitimate players out there, and we owe it to those folks to create a fair playing field.”

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or cwelch@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @craigawelch.