Proposed new geoduck farm in South Puget Sound has some neighbors upset over aesthetic, environmental impact on nearby public beach.
OLYMPIA — For more than a decade, a small group of Thurston County residents has fought to protect a beach from one of the shellfish industry’s cash cows — or more specifically, cash clams.
Known for their funny name and elephant-trunklike necks, the geoduck (GOO’-ee-duhk) especially thrives along the South Puget Sound’s nutrient-rich shores.
This bizarre bivalve mollusk is a popular delicacy in Asian nations such as China, where geoducks can fetch more than $125 per pound during peak demand. Some say the phallic clams are aphrodisiacs, The Olympian reported.
But the neighbors near Zangle Cove in the Boston Harbor area are more focused on the industrial farming practices — called geoduck aquaculture — that they say could threaten the health and public use of an otherwise open beach.
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The beach is smack dab in the heart of the world’s geoduck capital.
One property owner on Zangle Cove, ChangMook Sohn, has approached Taylor Shellfish about staffing a proposed 1.1-acre geoduck farm on his private tidelands. Based in Mason County, Taylor Shellfish is the country’s largest shellfish farmer and harvests about 700,000 pounds of geoducks a year.
Sohn’s proposal has been tangled up in red tape and opposition for years but has recently shown signs of moving forward. In May, Thurston County responded to Sohn’s application with a list of environmental conditions that the farm would need to satisfy to receive a permit.
The neighbors are appealing the ruling. Aside from environmental concerns, the neighbors say a geoduck farm will spoil more than just the beach’s natural beauty.
“This is traditionally a recreational beach,” said Kathryn Townsend, whose home abuts the cove. “Everybody uses the beach.”
Sohn, who once was the state’s chief economist and a candidate for state treasurer, declined to comment for this story.
Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey said the company is interested in leasing Sohn’s land, but there is no agreement at this time.
Dewey said the company has provided technical help to Sohn, who has not farmed geoducks before.
“It’s so challenging to get new farms permitted,” Dewey said. “Taylor’s is one of the few that has the resources to get permits because opponents have made it so expensive and prohibitive to move through the process.”
Washington is the world leader in geoduck aquaculture. The giant clams account for about 7 percent of the state’s commercial shellfish production and about 27 percent of the total value, according to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In 2013, the state generated about 1.6 million pounds of geoduck, which was valued at about $24.5 million.
Almost all of the geoducks come from east of Hood Canal. In the South Puget Sound, geoducks are the third most harvested shellfish after oysters and mussels.
The most recognizable trait of a geoduck farm is the grid of plastic net-covered tubes that protect the seedlings for the first couple of years.
Eventually, these sedentary clams burrow deeper as their food-filtering siphons grow up to 3 feet long.
After five to seven years, geoducks are ready to harvest. The average geoduck weighs about 2 pounds, although the state biologists report catching one that weighed more than 8 pounds. Wild geoducks are among the most long-lived animals with a life span that can reach 140 years or more.
Countless wild geoduck siphons poke out of the seaweed-coated sands during low tide on Zangle Cove, squirting bursts of water before slowly sinking below the surface.
About a quarter-mile east of Zangle Cove, a small crew took advantage of the low tide June 3 to dig up 350 to 400 pounds of geoducks.
By the end of the day, the harvest would be sold in Tacoma for $9 to $16 a pound then shipped alive to Asian markets. Multiple reports show that more than 90 percent of all harvested geoducks in the United States go to Asia, although the clams are sometimes sold by poachers on the black market.
Ian Child, owner of Sound Shellfish and a former biologist with the Squaxin Island Tribe, has been farming geoducks for more than a decade.
He said the busiest time of year is in January and February during Chinese New Year celebrations when people are more likely to splurge on geoduck.
Child has a small operation in which he leases the tidelands from a private homeowner; he said the stringent permit process has made expansion of his business unlikely.
Child said Zangle Cove would be a perfect spot to raise geoducks.
“The aesthetics are what people have a hard time with, not the actual farming of geoducks,” said Child, defending the clam’s water-filtering function as a benefit to the environment.