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Booming geoduck farms move closer to shore
Neighbors fear habitat near tideflats will be disrupted

The Olympian

Commercial geoduck farms are cropping up all over the intertidal beaches of South Sound in response to a growing Asian market for the world's largest burrowing clam.

Advances in geoduck growing techniques have turned a harvest that used to occur only on native clams in the deeper waters of Puget Sound into some highly visible, and sometimes controversial, farming operations near the shoreline.

In Thurston County, residents of Zangle Cove near Boston Harbor are up in arms over the sudden proliferation of geoduck farms in their neighborhood - four since 2003.

They fear the farms, which feature thousands of PVC pipes stuck in the sand to house the baby geoducks, will disrupt the nearshore habit at, especially at harvest time when the mature geoducks - 4 to 7 years old - are blasted out of the sand with high pressure water hoses, temporarily turning the tideflats into a liquefied, soupy mess.

"It's one thing to talk about geoduck farming - it's another thing to see it," said Zangle Cove resident Kathryn Townsend. "It's an operation that's changing our shoreline."

Geoduck farmers, on the other hand, contend the tideland disruption at harvest time is short-lived.

"The disturbance isn't continuous," said geoduck farmer Brian Allen of Allen Shellfish, who operates three farms in the area. "After several tide cycles, you see the critters back."

Townsend and her neighbors are upset that farms are cropping up without county oversight or permits. They said the county planners should require the farmers to apply for a substantial shoreline development permit, which would create some review of a project's environmental impact and give neighbors notice of pending farms.

"We're asking for a moratorium on new farms until they figure this thing out," she said.

Historically, Thurston County has not required shoreline permits for geoduck farms, noted Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

Permit requirements vary county by county throughout Puget Sound, but more counties are starting to require shoreline permits for geoduck farms. About 125 acres of tidelands are leased in Puget Sound for geoduck farming by about 25 companies, Downey estimated. The bulk of the operations are in South Sound. They got started about 10 years ago following successes spawning geoduck seed in a nursery setting.

Thurston County recently decided to start requiring shoreline permits for geoduck farms in areas that have not previously been used to grow shellfish commercially, county planner Roger Geibelhaus said.

Geoduck farms are producing about 875,000 pounds of geoducks per year in Washington state, Downey said. That compares to about 4 million pounds of wild geoducks harvested from state Department of Natural Resources submerged tidelands each year. The two together are about half the world's supply, fetching about $10 a pound on the Asian market.

Geoduck farming has spawned opposition up and down Puget Sound, said Lauri Brauneis, a member of the Save Our Shorelines group in the Gig Harbor area.

"We're hearing from concerned citizens all over Puget Sound, Canada and Alaska," she said. "Geoduck farming is like the new Gold Rush."

In one area of just under 1 acre and encompassing two tideland leases, Allen has planted about 120,000 geoducks in PVC tubes, which are covered with netting to protect the clams from predators during the first year while the clams settle into the tideflats. The netting is usually removed after one year and the pipes after two years.

He has leased tidelands from Zangle Cove area property owners willing to house the farms in return for a share of the profits at harvest time, which can be anywhere from four to seven years after the baby geoducks are planted.

"I came home from work one day a year ago and there it was in front of my house," Olympia physician Eric Klein said. "It's a horrible eyesore. I wish they would take it out."

It makes no sense that he must undergo county scrutiny and pay thousands of dollars in permit fees to build a stairway to the beach, or a patio behind his house, he said. But the geoduck farms were allowed without review or permits.

The tubes, netting, ropes and stakes associated with geoduck farms generate marine debris and interfere with recreational use of the waterfront, including kayaking, swimming and water-skiing, critics said.

Geoduck farmers in Washington have adopted an environmental code of practices to reduce environmental impacts and ward off opposition, Downey said. For instance:

  • Geoduck farms are not placed in eelgrass beds or other biologically sensitive areas such as herring or smelt spawning grounds.

  • Growers are encouraged to maintain their farms to minimize marine debris and conduct regular patrols to pick up debris from the farms.

    Siting a geoduck farm on a beach lined with waterfront homes is asking for trouble, noted Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Co., a Mason County-based shellfish company, which farms about 500,000 pounds of geoducks per year.

    "We try to avoid the firefights by looking for areas without multiple use," he said. "But those areas are getting harder and harder to find."

    A 2004 study commissioned by Taylor Shellfish and two other Olympia area shellfish arms looked at the effects of intertidal geoduck farming on endangered species and fish habitat and concluded it wasn't significant.

    However, the study by Entrix Inc. of Olympia said more research is needed to determine whether geoduck harvesting in the intertidal zone causes changes in the number and variety of marine plants and animals living in the sediment more so than natural disturbances such as storms.

    "There should be an environmental impact study to look at the impacts of harvest on the stability of the sediments," said David Jamison, a marine biologist and Boston Harbor resident.

    The effects of harvest on marine plants, animals and sediments will be addressed in a study due from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2008 in advance of a new requirement that geoduck farmers obtain a Corps permit for their projects, Downey said.

    Critics also question whether geoduck farming conforms with Gov. Chris Gregoire's goal of restoring nearshore habitat in Puget Sound by 2020.

    A case can be made that geoduck farming does more to improve nearshore water quality and habitat than harm it, Downey said.

    A mature geoduck filters up to 31 gallons of water per day, removing nutrients that promote algae blooms that rob the water of oxygen vital to marine life, she said.

    And the feces from geoducks helps feed the sea grasses that are a critical component of the nearshore habitat, she said.

    There are too many unanswered questions to assume adding geoducks to the intertidal area is good for the marine environment, Townsend said.

    "We're not against commercial shellfish farming," Brauneis said. "We're just trying to be good stewards of the nearshore environment."

    Meanwhile, Allen said he has abandoned a plan to lease a fourth parcel of tideland near Zangle Cove, based on the opposition in the neighborhood.

    Online

    For more information about citizen concerns with intertidal geoduck farming in Zangle Cove, go to www.protectzanglecove.org. For more information about the commercial shellfish industry, go to www.pcsga.org.

    Geoduck facts

    The geoduck is the largest intertidal clam and largest burrowing clam in the world, weighing up to 10 pounds with an average shell length of 7 inches.

    The common geoduck has an American Indian origin, meaning "dig deep."

    The neck of the geoduck can stretch to 3 feet in length.

    Geoducks are among the longest-lived animals in the world with many individual clams living to be more than 100 years old.

    They are native to the Pacific coast of Canada and the United States.

    They bury themselves up to three feet deep in sand and silt marine floors at water depths between 10 feet and 80 feet.

    The geoduck feeds on plankton and is preyed upon by crab, fish, birds and sea stars.

    The prime meat of the geoduck comes from the neck, which is used in sushi or minced into patties that are pan-fried.

    The geoduck is the mascot of The Evergreen State College.


  • Enlarge Photo
    Tony Overman/The Olympian
    Dana Oride and her husband, Rupert Grove of Olympia, remove nets from the top of 40,000 plastic pipes that each house a trio of year-old geoducks on the Allen Shellfish beds in Zangle Cove. "The nets are there to protect the babies" from predators, Oride said.

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