Rhymes with Chewy Luck

Alaska claims more than its share of superlatives – the highest mountains, the biggest bears, endless trophy salmon and halibut. The state’s long list of the remarkable extends even to the ocean floor – under the ocean floor – to be precise, three feet or more under the ocean floor.

The world’s largest burrowing clam is the geoduck, native to the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. These clams have shells that may reach 23 cm (about 10 inches) wide, but their most distinctive feature is their long, thick neck and siphon — which the geoduck extends from its burrowed home up to the surface. A geoduck sustains itself by filtering passing seawater for phytoplankton and other tiny bits of food.

Once a young geoduck (40-50 days old) has chosen a spot and begins burrowing, it will spend the rest of its life in that one spot. And that’s a long time – one of the longest-lived animals in the world, geoducks regularly live more than a century. The oldest was reported to be 168 years old. A single geoduck caught near Sitka weighed 13.2 lbs.

The name “geoduck” is a misspelling of a Nisqualli Indian name, meaning “dig deep.” Also called gweduc, gweduck and goiduck – the proper pronunciation is “gooey-duck.” Puget Sound is thick with geoducks, and Evergreen State College, located at the southernmost tip of the sound, has chosen the creature as school mascot.

Which brings us to the animal’s unfortunate appearance. Despite flesh whose taste is described as “a little stiffer than warm butter” and “crisp and delicate” — the appearance of the animal is anything but delicate.  Geoducks are also called “king clams” by Americans, but the Chinese refer to them as “elephant trunk clams.”  That’s a good description of the appearance of the larger, older geoducks, although the animal could also resemble another elephant appendage, this one only on male elephants. For obvious reasons, some Asians attribute meat from the geoduck’s neck with aphrodisiacal properties. Evergreen College, too, recognizes the geoduck’s nature. The school’s Latin motto is Omnia Extares or “Let It All Hang Out.”

The commercial geoduck fishery began in the 1970’s in Washington State and British Columbia.  Stephan LaCroix, a commercial diver and geoduck farmer, became involved in the fishery there at the beginning and was among the first to develop the market in Alaska a decade later.  LaCroix said Hong Kong was once the main market for geoducks, and divers worried that the Communist takeover of the island in 1997 would result in the end of that lucrative market. Today, however, any number of Chinese cities, as well as Hong Kong, have a wealthier class able to afford the premium prices geoducks fetch when shipped live from Alaska.  A 2 lb. geoduck costs $80-$100 U.S. in the restaurant or specialty shop. LaCroix said that even if only the top 10 percent of Chinese can afford his product, that still represents 130 million people.

“Instead of losing our market, which was our fear,” LaCroix said, “our market moved to the mainland.”

In Southeast Alaska today, about 110 people have permits allowing them to dive commercially for geoducks, with about half of them doing so actively. The present harvest is 400,000 lbs., regionwide and set to increase to 600,000 lbs. next year. Divers who market for themselves occasionally get up to $9 per pound for their harvest, although the usual price is closer to $3.  Divers often also harvest sea cucumbers, but few dive full time. To accommodate the part-timers, many of the two-day openings are held on Saturday and Sunday, after the beds have been tested for toxins during the week.

The group of divers around Sitka is a tight bunch of “senior” divers who regulate their catch in a cooperative, rather than competitive manner. Typical in that regard is Larry Trani, a Sitka resident of more than 35 years who has been diving the whole time. Now he dives with old friends and his two adult sons.

Two of the men will be in the water at any one time, with the third running the boat above, Trani said. Geoduck divers are connected to the boat above with two hoses. One is for air and the other is a high pressure water hose to blast the sand and sediment away and expose the geoduck enough to pry it out. Care must be taken not to break the neck – the clam retracts somewhat into itself, “like a Chinese finger puzzle,” says Trani.

The living geoducks are packed in leak-proof boxes and flown overseas with the quickest connections to be transferred to a live tank in the restaurant or store. A geoduck can tolerate up to five days out of the water. An Asian family with something to celebrate might purchase a whole animal.

The geoduck live market is a good and growing gig — but, as always, not without complications — some with claws and voracious appetites plus some with attorneys and voracious appetites. The otters that were replanted in Southeast in the 1960s have been feeding on geoducks – Trani sometimes finds beds that were cleaned out before he got there. And at least one consortium has been formed to gain permits for geoduck farms.

Farms are sure to close off areas to commercial divers. But they do not have the pollution problems often associated with fish farms. Farmed geoducks are not fed, they gain their nutrients from passing waters. They are grown from seed spawned by animals removed from the area and sent to a facility in Seward.

But some divers worry that the farmers will clean out all the geoducks in their permitted area, sell the windfall and then go out of business.  Trani also worries that the present geoduck boom depends too much on the “old growth” nature of the harvest – large animals decades old.  Once a century-old geoduck is harvested, he asks, will its replacement have a similar time to live unmolested?

from the 2006 Sitka Harbor  Guide