Geoducks are very large saltwater clams with a bizarre appearance. They have nothing to do with ducks. Geoduck means “to dig deep.” The Lushootseed Indians of the Pacific Northwest named the geoduck — pronounced “gwee-duck” — for its signature burrowing behavior. Geoduck farming occurs along the West Coast and elsewhere but remains centered in Washington state.
Each geoduck burrows deep in the sands of tidelands with its agile little foot. You won’t see it from the surface unless you recognize the tiny double bump of its neck, which pokes out of the sand to suck phytoplankton from the water. Wild geoduck populations live far enough offshore that you can only reach them in extreme low tide or with diving gear. Thus, prior to the development of geoduck aquaculture, the only practical way to harvest geoducks was to dive for them — a difficult and very profitable occupation. Businessweek reports that productive geoduck divers can easily earn $75,000 annually.
Geoduck farmers buy young geoducks from commercial hatcheries and plant them in PVC pipes in the loose sands of intertidal beaches. There, the geoducks burrow into the sand and grow for several years until the farmers liquify the sand to extract them. Farmed geoduck does not yet suffer from the reduced quality of many other farmed aquatic species, like salmon, because once planted in their tidelands the geoducks feed and live naturally until they are harvested. Geoduck farm owners have no fixed income and can make as much profit as they are able depending on market demand, competition, water conditions, loss and waste, and operating costs. Salaried farm managers who operate farms for the owners earn a fixed income in the neighborhood of $62,000, with some potential for bonus and revenue sharing. Farmhands earn less.
As with all food production, fluctuations in the market price of geoduck affect the profitability of geoduck farming and diving. As recently as the 1970s, geoducks were obscure shellfish limited mainly to their preferred habitat of the Pacific Northwest, eaten mostly by Native Americans and other locals. An intense marketing campaign popularized them in Asia, causing the price to soar. Geoduck prices have since climbed steadily. Short-term fluctuations punctuate this trend, causing the profitability to change from year to year.
Geoducks grow slowly, making them a poor species to harvest for food. A wild geoduck habitat takes decades to recover from a harvesting. Because of this resource depletion, commercial geoduck diving has limited growth prospects and suffers from restrictive quotas. On the farming side, more people continue to join the industry to get in on the growing market demand. This increases competition and cuts into the profits of individual geoduck farmers. A vocal anti-farming movement -- which is concerned about beach pollution, threats to other species and the loss of public beaches -- also makes it more difficult for geoduck farmers to acquire the use of tidelands for farming.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.