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.

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