Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Shellfish Farmer Tom Bloomfield: A Canary in a Coal Mine

Above: Tom Bloomfield, center, is indeed at the center of managing the third largest geoduck operation in the world at Thurston County's Chelsea Farms shellfish company on Eld Inlet. Crew member Theo Walker is at left.
Shellfish Farmer Tom Bloomfield: A Canary in a Coal Mine
By Janine Unsoeld
“The shellfish industry is like the canaries in the coal mine – without shellfish, you have no baseline to monitor a healthy ecosystem," said Tom Bloomfield, shellfish farm manager at Chelsea Farms on Steamboat Island's Eld Inlet.

Canaries were used to determine the level of dangerous gases in a coal mine. If there was enough oxygen, the bird in the cage lived and the miners mined. If the canary died, then the miners knew to beat it out of there.

Bloomfield made the analogy as part of his testimony in support of three geoduck farming permit applications by Taylor Shellfish Company and Arcadia Point Seafood at a hearing on November 26 at the Thurston County Fairgrounds.

The applications are being recommended for approval by the Thurston County planning department. The hearing was significant because these are the first geoduck aquaculture applications recommended for approval by Thurston County since 2007. (For the story, go to Little Hollywood, www.janineslittlehollywood.blogspot.com, November 28, 2012, “Proposed Thurston County Geoduck Farming Applications Heard”)

In his testimony, Bloomfield was brief but pointed, explaining his role as a fifth generation shellfish farmer, responding to earlier speakers Susan Macomson and Laura Hendricks, both of whom brought shellfish industry debris. Saying he has spent thousands of hours out on the beach and in boats picking up debris, Bloomfield said it was a frustration that he has never seen Sierra Club members out there doing the same.

In Bloomfield's opinion, the shellfish industry is alive and well: Chelsea Farms is the third largest geoduck shellfish operation in the world, right behind Thurston County’s Seattle Shellfish Company, and Mason County’s Taylor Shellfish Company.
And Bloomfield seems to be one of those canaries in a coal mine, leading the way.

A Day In The Life of Tom Bloomfield, Shellfish Farm Manager

Above: The day begins by hauling up oysters and manila clams out of Eld Inlet at Chelsea Farms.  Here, crew members haul up 50 bags of oysters and 12 bags of manila clams. Bloomfield says oysters breathe water like a fish - and each one filters about five gallons of water a day.
Bloomfield starts his day when it still looks like night, at 4:30 a.m. His crew of eight starts at 7:30 a.m., hauling out black plastic bags of manila clams and oysters from the shores of Eld Inlet. I met him this morning at the more civilized hour of 8:00 a.m., just as two crew members were hauling up 50 bags of manila clams and 12 bags of oysters that will be sorted, rinsed, and packed up today according to customer orders.
Oysters and clams are processed twice a week, and shipped out every day. The shellfish I witnessed coming out of Eld Inlet this morning will be going in vastly different directions - some are in response to specific orders while others are sold wholesale and redistributed to restaurants nationwide.
Chelsea Farms ships its manila clams to San Francisco and its oysters to the East Coast, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C.

Do any shellfish stay here? I asked.
“I used to sell some to Anthony’s restaurant, and some to Elliott’s Oyster Bar in Seattle from time to time, but there’s just not the market here. I do have a call of interest coming in from Walrus and the Carpenter, though, so I’m waiting on them.” Who? What? Walrus and the Carpenter, Bloomfield had to explain to me, but apparently not to the rest of the shellfish eating population, is a premier oyster bar in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.

Today, an order of clams will be trucked to California and will be at San Francisco's Fresh Fish the day after tomorrow. Another order is going to Elliott's (a "little order" of 80 dozen), another set is going to Portland, Oregon and yet more are being shipped by air to New York.  Each bag displays a tag indicating the harvest date, location where they were harvested, and other department of health details.
Above: These are Chelsea Farms' "boutique oysters" known as "Chelsea Gems." 
Above: Daniel Bevier, a former logger, was laid off from the timber industry and was hired several years ago by Bloomfield. Bevier gets the job of writing addresses on boxes, in addition to other duties, because "he has the best penmanship," says Bloomfield. This order of manila clams is going to San Francisco.
Above: Juan Robledo, left, and Miguel Baltizar rinse mud from the shellfish and cull broken ones from the batch. Bloomfield says shellfish farming is labor intensive, working to stay one week ahead in production and orders.
Nearby, a geoduck diver for Chelsea Farms was underwater, harvesting geoducks that will be in China by tomorrow. This aspect of the business is contracted out to a third party.
The diver, wearing a dry suit and gloves, will be underwater for eight hours a day, feeling around for siphon holes in 10 - 12 feet of water. Using a pressurized water hose, a "stinger," to loosen the sand around the geoduck, he'll pull it out, place several in a bag until it gets heavy, bring the bag on board, and go back, repeatedly. This is done by feel alone, working blind, as the silt is constantly stirred up. The diver stays warm in the 49 degree waters because he also wears a polar fleece. "Plus, he's sweating a lot...it's hard work," says Bloomfield.
Today, and everyday, this diver will harvest 700 pounds of geoduck for Chelsea Farms. Bloomfield manages about 80 farms for the company.
As huge as those numbers sound, Chelsea Farms isn't producing all it's capable of right now, Bloomfield says, because of a lack of geoduck seed. Bloomfield buys seed from California, Oregon and Washington, but says "it's really shot right now because of ocean acidification. We're working at half our capacity right now." (Editor's Note - 12/6/12 - see comment section for correction/clarification by Bloomfield of this paragraph.)
Ninety percent of farmed geoduck is sent to Asia.
"It's a commodity market, based on supply and demand. The quality drives the prices, and the quality is graded 1, 2, and 3, with 1 being the best. To be graded 1, they want an exact shell to neck length ratio: the siphon has to be 1 1/2 times the length of the shell. And it has to be blonde, like the color of your hair, not orange or black." It has to be two pounds - anything more or less than that gets graded 2 or 3. The smaller ones are called babies, and the bigger ones have tougher meat. They pay out less."
Bloomfield says divers might get paid about 70 - 80 cents a pound, so if the diver harvests 700 pounds a day, the company might make about $500 a day. That may sound lucrative, but Bloomfield says it's an expensive business to get into, plus paying for the equipment, boat, fuel, and crew members. In general, the business is not for everybody.
"The hours suck, especially in the winter," says Bloomfield. "Your schedule changes every 45 minutes to an hour every day, every other week, because of the tides. Every other week, we work a series of low, low tides at night, then every other week, we're on days. So, we'll start work at, like, 9:30 p.m., work five to six hours, then every day start a half hour later, until we're starting at 2 a.m. Sometimes we're walking around like zombies...." Winter is September through the end of March.
Deep Roots in the Shellfish Industry
“I was a fish monger in Tacoma. If it smells bad, it’s bad. Fresh fish isn’t fishy smelling. I’ve eaten oysters all over the world, even in Australia. And you know what, they prefer our oysters, because they’re the best.”
A fifth generation shellfish farmer who has been with Chelsea Farms for 10 years, Bloomfield wishes he could just do what he does best – farm – but in this highly politicized and litigious world of commercial shellfish growing, he can’t.
“It’s frustrating. I have to be a politician, a lawyer, and a public relations guy and I’m not the most polished guy,” he says. Bloomfield has a nine year old son, and he says he is not necessarily encouraging him to follow him into the business.

“I studied and received a B.A. in marine biology with an emphasis on fisheries, but then I was a machinist in the aerospace industry, then I was a truck driver…I wanted to get out there first, before I came back.”

His family has deep roots in the area. Bloomfield lent me a book, “The Oyster Was Our World: Life On Oyster Bay, 1898 to 1914,” by Bloomfield's great-great aunt Cora Chase, who farmed Olympia oysters. The beds are now farmed by Taylor Shellfish. The book is available at the Mason County Historical Society. 

I asked him about competition between local shellfish companies for what is limited, and now quite crowded stretches of available acreage along south Puget Sound shorelines. According to the Sierra Club and other sources, a mile along the Nisqually Reach is currently being privately farmed out to commercial industrial shellfish growing operations, as is 40% of Henderson Inlet, 70% of Eld Inlet, and a whopping 91% of Totten Inlet.
Bloomfield downplayed the competition question, saying he’s never worked for Taylor, but his father did, until Tom was five years old. “Taylor is a good player. They’re successful and take pride in what they do.”

Asked about the hearing on November 26 and the shellfish industry debris brought by permit opponents, Bloomfield had strong words and said he could tell exactly whose debris that was.

“Our equipment is unique – we all cut our tubes a little differently, use different colors and diameters, tie off our nets differently…we’re self-policing and deal with it internally…If there’s a problem with someone’s gear, I call them up and say, 'Hey, come pick up your stuff…'" Each shoreline is different and the equipment needs to adapt to that particular environment and stuff can get loose. We don’t want stuff out there – it gives us all a black eye.”
Above: Piles of PVC pipes. Bloomfield says pipes are expensive, costing a little over $1.00 a tube, although there is a discount when purchased in bulk. He says it's in his best financial interest to retrieve his tubes, scrape off the barnacles, throw away broken ones, and reuse the good ones. The black, plastic oyster bags are also reused. He said that the ones I saw in use today are over 10 years old.
I asked him how much a property owner can earn by leasing out his or her shoreline for development. He said about 10-15% of gross sales. “They don’t see money until harvest, but some receive payments of $1000 per acre per year, like a rent or lease agreement.” That can add up to big bucks.
But geoducks can take five to seven years to mature after planting, so it seems that can be a long wait for all parties to bring in the big bucks. I asked him about this, since geoducks are especially prized by international markets. The Taylor Shellfish website order form, for example, charges $30 for just one, two pound geoduck.

Bloomfield said that for a long time, he made the same assumption, that geoducks were his cash crop, but, he recently penciled it out and realized that he makes more money, net, per acre, farming oysters than geoducks.

“Oysters mature in one to three years, manila clams mature in two to three years, and like you said, geoducks take the longest. But throw in the cost of labor, equipment, and time, and geoducks cost more.”

Given a shellfish farmer’s hectic schedule that’s dictated by the tides, I thanked Bloomfield for graciously giving me a lengthy personal tour of his operation on Steamboat Island.

“It’s very flattering that people have been so interested the past couple of years in what we do…it’s humbling.” For years, he says his tours have been primarily for Steamboat’s fifth-grade Griffin School students, Thurston County pre-schools and Tumwater’s New Market Skills high school classes.

Now, in what seems to be the story for so many other environmental issues regarding the Pacific Northwest, the whole world is watching. In this case, we'll have to see - like a canary in a coal mine - who ends up the winner of Puget Sound's shorelines.


  1. I am very surprised to see that Washington growers are stating that they are buying geoduck seed from California and Oregon. One of the major concerns that citizens raised in 2007 to both Ecology and the Department of Fish and Wildlife is the genetic effects of raising farmed geoducks that could effect the wild geoduck populations.

    We were assured that there is a very strict genetic protocol where only Washington geoduck seed selected from the same growing area is allowed to ensure genetic fitness. According to scientists, it only takes a relatively minor change in genetics that could be very harmful to the future and resilience of our wild geoduck stocks.

    We have also been told that they are not using triploid geoducks where they supposedly would not be spawning. With so many geoduck farms adding over 100,000 farmed spawning geoducks per acre, this is an issue that needs serious re-examination. The millions of adjacent sub-tidal wild geoducks provide a critical role in a healthy Puget Sound.

    Could they have possibly meant Pacific oyster or Manila clam seed?


    Laura Hendricks

  2. Concerns with farming a species include genetic sameness and mixing with wild species.

    Genetic sameness comes through taking a lot of "seed" from a few adults. With salmon, for example, virtually every fish in the population has a chance of contributing genetic material. This maintains the whole range of characteristics, the biggest fish, the smallest fish, the one that tended to turn left, the one that tended to turn right etc. and this range of characteristics is important in maintaining the population as distinct from other populations. Niche differentiation is the effort put forth to maintain separation between stocks. We see this especially in birds, where maybe the key difference is the shape of the beak but the signals are present in the tail feathers and other displays.

    Mixing comes about when hatchery or farmed fish, for example, spawn with wild fish, which can completely screw up their genetics. For this reason, hatchery and farmed fish are often chosen for their genetic disimilarity to native fish, spawning when no native species do in the same stream or river etc. or choosing fish from another part of the world, like the Atlantic.

    Interesting about geoduck larvae coming form out of state. I knew this about oysters but geoducks is new to me. The seed would probably have to come from here.

    My feeling is that Pacific oysters and Manila clams are genetically a safer bet because they are non-native and pose little risk of breeding with wild populations. The problems with these species is the way we sometimes grow them, chemically and mechanically mangling the beach to increase productivity and grow them where they normally wouldn't survive.

    Geoducks on the other hand are native and farmed ones will reproduce with wild ones. This will over time reduce variation which, for one thing, could make both wild and farmed populations susceptible to the same diseases.

    Seems sort of ironic that for many decades we've been so conscientious about not mixing wild and farmed populations of fish and now we've become oblivious.

  3. For the record, we receive no geoduck seed from Oregon or California (although I would if the permits to import it were in place and the brood-stock was obtained locally). We do receive manila clam and pacific oyster seed from those states from time to time.
    Sorry for the confusion,
    Tom Bloomfield