Friday, May 28, 2010

The Gooey Politics of Geoduck Aquaculture: A Day in the Life of a Shellfish Farmer

Above: Matt Smith, left, and Jim Woodfin harvest geoducks on Eld Inlet this week.

By Janine Gates

Matt Smith, 39, owner and operator of Trident Marine Services, calls himself a farmer. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years,” said Smith, his voice filled with passion. But Smith is not a farmer slopping manure out of the barn or raising acres of grain. He and his employee, Jim Woodfin, harvest geoducks.

Geoduck aquaculture is farming on privately owned tidelands, where salt water tides ebb and flow, to cultivate large geoduck clams. Geoducks are considered a delicacy, particularly in Asia.

Smith, who received a masters degree in Shellfish Aquaculture from Oregon State University in 1996, and holds an undergraduate degree in Marine Fisheries from Humboldt University, has worked with geoduck clams for over 13 years with the state, tribes, and private landowners.

Smith is clearly enthusiastic about his work.

“I was raised in a shellfish family. My dad was a PhD marine biologist and commercial diver cultivating mussels in southern California on offshore oil platforms. I learned to dive at age 11, and in addition to helping my mom with selling shellfish at Farmer’s Markets, I also harvested product early in my high school days."

"My dad taught me to love and respect the ocean. I learned not only science, but good husbandry practices and how to compliment and work with Mother Nature. I have always had a real conservationist outlook with regard to farming shellfish and making sure the environment is not impacted,” says Smith.

On this particular day, I watched for several hours as he and Woodfin harvested geoducks that had been planted five years ago on private, waterfront property off of Steamboat Island Road on Eld Inlet in Olympia.

The property owner, Sandy Sinclair, 82, is leasing his tideland for geoduck farming with another shellfish farmer, and Smith contracts with that farmer to harvest the geoducks. Sinclair says he's doing this because it’s a way to try to recoup his property taxes. Sinclair says he receives about 10% of what Trident makes, and receives a monthly check.

“Every little bit helps,” says Sinclair.

“Making sure the landowner is happy is very important to me,” says Smith.

It doesn‘t always work out good financially for Smith, though. “I have had beaches where I lost 20,000 seed in the exact same spot two years in a row. It was due to unexpected torrential rains we had here in Shelton two years in a row. Lots of bivalves and intertidal life were affected by those huge rains. But you have to take some negative with the positive, and hopefully come out ahead.”

Sinclair, a retired North Thurston School District teacher, is well aware of the controversy around geoduck farming, admits some environmental concerns have merit, and is open-minded to learning more about the concerns of the industry. He plans to allow the replanting of another cycle of geoducks after this one is harvested.

“I consider it to be my garden,” says Sinclair. Sinclair says his favorite author is Antoine De Saint Exupery, who wrote a book called, “Wind, Sand and Stars.”

“It explains a little bit of my philosophy. There’s a quote in there that I think is real appropriate to this situation: “No matter how little we own, someone will try to take it away. Nomads will defend to the death their empty desert sands.”

“As I would, my beach tidelands,” says Sinclair.

About 33,000 geoducks were planted on about 1/3 of an acre on Sinclair’s property five years ago, three in each PVC pipe, which prevents the geoducks from being washed away. The pipes stay in the tide flats for about a year.

Above: PVC pipes contain young geoducks. The pipes are covered with nets, either hair-net sized nets or canopy nets, to protect the geoducks from floating away when young, or being eaten by predators.

“That’s the ugly part,” Sinclair admitted.

He also admits that some pipes occasionally get dislodged and float away. When the tubes are taken out, you can’t tell that the property has been planted. Not all geoducks survive.

Sinclair’s PVC pipes, and those of his neighbors, who are also leasing their tide flats for geoduck farming, use individual hair-net sized nets secured by rubber bands, to cover each pipe.

Smith and Woodfin first watch the area for telltale squirts, which indicate where the geoducks were and stick thin markers that look like kabob skewers into the sand to note their location. Then, with a hose attached to their nearby boat, Smith uses sea water to pressure wash the location precisely where the geoduck was seen squirting. Not a shovel was in sight.

To reach Smith and Woodfin, Sinclair and I walked on countless sand dollars and sea life. Watching Smith and Woodfin use the pressure washer hose, I wondered if this method doesn’t tend to remove everything in its path, including native species.

“It’s actually a low pressure, high volume jet that loosens the substrate in order to extract the geoduck. Only a small fraction of the fine or silty sediment is actually suspended and removed. Any rocks, gravel, sand, finer sand and so on, settle back down to the bottom very quickly and flatten out as water moves across the beach, restoring it to normal looking conditions. This mixing can actually be healthy for the soil,” says Smith.

Woodfin sticks his arm down into the mud to his shoulder blade and pulls up a very large geoduck.

Eagles, seagulls and crows flew low overhead, looking for a quick snack.

“This one is worth about $30,” said Smith. High quality geoducks are sold for about $15 a pound.

Above: Matt Smith holds a high quality geoduck.

According to the state Department of Natural Resources, geoduck farming has become common throughout Puget Sound during the past decade, with about 200 acres of private tidelands cultivated.

The cumulative effect of harvesting operations is being researched. The increasing demand for shellfish and new aquaculture operations raises concerns about the sustainability of ecosystems that support this use.

Smaller inlets and bays that have traditionally been used for personal, recreational uses throughout the Puget Sound are especially vulnerable to the industry.

“This is a unique beach,” says Smith. “Each site is very specific and individual with regard to currents, waves and tides, but this beach is so swift that the current really keeps it clean.” Smith says he has harvested a total of about 25,000 pounds from Sinclair’s and his two neighbor's properties so far.

“These are going to China tonight,” Smith said, lifting up a large, two pound geoduck. “It only takes about a day for them to get shipped over there. They’re kept cold, and when they arrive, they put them in live tanks to revive them, Smith said.

Above: Matt Smith with a geoduck on Eld Inlet this week.

The demand for geoducks in Asia has increased dramatically since the 1970’s. A plate of geoduck there now sells for around one hundred dollars. Geoduck is primarily sold to Asia's upper classes. One single, live geoduck can sell for $228 or more.

Sinclair picked out a whopper of a geoduck and asked if he could take it home. Smith balked. "Well, Sandy, that one's worth about $30, how about this one," picking out a tiny one. “This one is only worth about $7,” Smith said, giving it to Sinclair so his wife could make it into soup. The tiny geoduck was a recruit.

“A recruit is one who grew here on its own - it wasn’t planted,” said Smith. It was a tiny native, compared to the two-pounders Woodfin had been pulling up.

Above: A recruit. Smith demonstrated how you can see how old a geoduck is by counting the rings on its shell, like a tree. Geoducks can live over 100 years, but the average age of a wild geoduck is 46 years old. The oldest known living geoduck is 168 years old.

Above: Matt Smith, left, and Jim Woodfin this week on Eld Inlet.

Addressing questions about the unknown, long term implications of harvesting, Smith said, “I think the long term implications could best be extrapolated by looking at the impacts of State harvest of geoduck for the last 30 years. I used to be a biologist for the Nisqually Tribe, which, like other tribes, co-manages the naturally occurring geoduck resource in Washington state for their particular or in-common fishing areas.”

"The state rotates the beds. Some individual beds are well over 200 acres. Once product is jetted out of an area, usually taking several months, it is left to rest for years and periodically checked for recruitment densities. When the density is sufficient to support another commercial harvest, the bed will be re-introduced into the harvest plan. I would think that if there were long term effects on the environment, geoducks wouldn't re-populate the same areas, which they do.”

Time was slipping away, and by 2:00 p.m., the tide was coming in, fast. Smith and Woodfin called it a day and motored away, to come back tomorrow.

Above: Sandy Sinclair calls it a day too, and heads back up to his house on Eld Inlet, geoduck in hand.

The Gooey Politics of Geoduck Aquaculture: Rulemaking

Above: Geoducks harvested from Eld Inlet this week.

By Janine Gates

In mid May, the Washington Department of Ecology released a pre-draft version of Shoreline Management Act rules relating to the siting and permitting of commercial geoduck aquaculture.

Geoduck aquaculture is farming on privately owned tidelands, where salt water tides ebb and flow, to cultivate large geoduck clams. They are considered a delicacy, particularly in Asia.

Ecology was directed to add language to Shoreline Master Program guidelines about commercial geoduck aquaculture under House Bill 2220, which passed in 2007.

There is a meeting on Wednesday, June 2 of the Shellfish Aquaculture Regulatory Committee (SARC) at the state Department of Ecology in Lacey from 10:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m. which will review the pre-draft rulemaking language.

The public is welcome to attend presentations and the SARC discussions, but public comment will not be taken. According to Cedar Bouta, Ecology’s project lead for the rulemaking, questions from the public will be taken after the close of the SARC meeting by Ecology staff. SARC members may or may not be in attendance during that time.

For about two hours, SARC members will hear the latest science from the University of Washington’s SeaGrant on geoduck research. Other topics will include permitting requirements and the rulemaking process.

Ecology expects to issue the draft rule on August 18, with a public comment period on the rule tentatively set for early September to mid-October. At that time, there will be four public hearings. Exact public comment dates and hearing locations will be announced when the draft rule is published.

According to Ecology, HB 2220 allows geoduck aquaculture to continue and expand based on current scientific understanding, provides for scientific research related to potential impacts of geoduck aquaculture, and applies what is learned as new science becomes available.

Ecology also took into consideration the work of the SARC, which met for two years from 2007 to 2009 and submitted a report to the Legislature in January 2009.

Above: PVC pipes that contain young geoduck. Shoreline homeowners, tribes, growers and environmentalists have long expressed concerns with geoduck farming related to aesthetics and view, noise, debris management, the use of artificial light from night operations, litter, navigation and access, and hours of operation. These factors, with ideas for possible guidelines, were included in the work of the SARC.

The most significant proposed change is the requirement of a conditional use permit for commercial aquaculture in critical saltwater habitats, renewable every five years.

“Conditional use permits are reviewed by Ecology and will provide an opportunity for state-level integration of current science, especially the results of SeaGrant’s research currently underway,” says Bouta.

Geoduck aquaculture is a water-dependent use and the early draft of the proposed rule includes language that directs local governments with intertidal habitat to inventory, identify and classify suitable areas for commercial geoduck aquaculture.

Over 250 towns, cities and counties are underway in their updates of their shoreline management programs.

“Ecology wants to minimize the burden this puts on local governments in the middle of updating their shoreline programs,” says Bouta. “When the rule changes take effect in mid-January, we’ll work closely with local governments on the day-to-day implementation of the rule, including guidance on commercial geoduck aquaculture best management practices.”

Thurston County is one of several counties with shellfish growing areas and operations, according to the state Department of Health.

Rule Language Concerns

Robin Downey, Pacific Shellfish Growers Association executive director, said her organization is still in the process of reviewing the rule. “We have some concerns, but we think Ecology has done a good job of involving stakeholders,” she said.

Several others have already reviewed the rule and are skeptical about the proposed language.

Laura Hendricks, a member of the SARC committee and chair of the Shorelines and Aquaculture Sub-committee for the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club says, “So far, Ecology has not said a word about industry destroying native species or the shellfish industry's new aquatic pest management strategic plan for bivalves in Oregon and Washington.”

The plan was produced by the shellfish industry as the first aquatic crop "pest" plan in the United States. The Sierra Club remains concerned that numerous citizens have witnessed native aquatic species being systematically removed or destroyed as “pests” and essential plant life being scraped off as "weeds.”

Hendricks says she has sent Ecology a list of 18 questions that she would like answered before she submits the Sierra Club's geoduck rulemaking comment letter.

“We are just finishing a draft fish habitat paper that includes documentation of the aquaculture impacts on fish and habitat, especially endangered salmon. This will be provided to Ecology with our final comments by June 5,” says Hendricks.

Curt Puddicombe, on behalf of the Case Inlet Shoreline Association and the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat, has also weighed in on Ecology’s pre-draft rule language. Case Inlet is the boundary between Pierce County and Mason County.

He says the draft overview lays the groundwork for changing certain language in the Shoreline Management Act (SMA) with several statements “that are misinterpretations and overstatements of HB 2220 and the Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) guidelines.”

“HB 2220 only requires Ecology to develop guidelines with the advice of the SARC for the appropriate siting and operation of geoduck aquaculture to be included in local master programs. There is no implication or explicit language in the bill that geoduck aquaculture expansion must move forward,” says Puddicombe.

Puddicombe also challenges Ecology’s assertion that the SMP Guidelines are clear that commercial aquaculture is an important and economically valuable water-dependent use. “That’s hyperbole and follows a longstanding, institutional bias that Ecology traditionally has bestowed on the shellfish industry.”

Puddicombe also questions why the pre-draft language compels local governments to classify appropriate areas for commercial geoduck aquaculture.

“Why is Ecology mandating that Puget Sound counties set aside specific areas for geoduck aquaculture? What about counties such as Mason and Thurston that have already grandfathered in these sites? Will there be pressure on property owners to lease private tidelands specifically for geoduck aquaculture? What about private tideland owners that do not want to be a part of Ecology’s geoduck aquaculture reserves? Is there a way for property owners or a community to opt-out of Ecology’s geoduck aquaculture reserves?”

“What is clear is that the SMA and the guidelines did not intend for the shorelines of Puget Sound to be summarily handed over for the commercial production of geoducks to benefit a handful of private companies. What is also clear is that the vast majority of citizens that have been witnessing the largely unregulated expansion of geoduck aquaculture are opposed to it,” says Puddicombe.

For more information on attending the June 2 SARC meeting, contact Cedar Bouta, Washington State Department of Ecology, at or (360) 407-6406.

For more information about rulemaking, go to Ecology’s Rule website:

SARC Committee website (not updated) -

Historical meeting minutes and 2009 report to the legislature:
Research reports:

For more information about the Washington SeaGrant:

Sierra Club website aquaculture page at:

For more information about Case Inlet Shoreline Association and the Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat go to: