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They may not be beautiful, but geoducks fetch a pretty price. (Natalie Fobes)

Geoducks: Happy as Clams

In the Pacific Northwest, fishermen are cashing in on the growing yen for geoducks, a funny-looking mollusk turned worldwide delicacy

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Parker recently spied a sixgill shark, and not long before, he confronted a flaming red Pacific octopus (both of these were more thrill than threat). Parker said he struggled for years as a commercial salmon fisherman but started hauling geoducks a decade ago after seeing others profit. "The truth of the matter is, I was scared to death to dive," Parker said. "But these guys were making serious, serious money."

For centuries Native Americans grubbed geoducks from the shallowest parts of their range whenever waters receded far enough. They ate them fresh or smoked. European settlers, too, found geoducks savory. Skillfully cooked, a geoduck would "puzzle persons who tasted it for the first time as to whether they were eating fish, flesh, or fowl," naturalist R.E.C. Stearns wrote in 1882. I found that the clams tasted organic and meaty when baked with mushrooms and onions; served raw they're brackish and chewy like squid, with a faint orange-maple tang.

Geoducks are a source of Pacific Northwest pride, exalted in song ("You can hear the diggers say, as they're headed for the bay, oh I gotta dig a duck, gotta dig a duck a day") and romanticized in novels like David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars, in which young Ishmael and Hatsue kiss after a glorious day spent digging the clams. Citing the animal's tendency to stick its neck out, Evergreen State College in Olympia adopted the geoduck as its mascot. The Geoduck Tavern, an aging waterfront bar on the Olympic Peninsula, sponsors a contest during the lowest tide of the year to see which patron can bag the biggest specimen. Gray-haired men sprawl on mud flats, arms buried in tidal sludge. "I dig that dirt out and reach down and reach down, way down, and feel the top of its shell, then take a little hand trawl to break the adhesion, then reach down again and wiggle and wiggle and wiggle until it comes," said Roy Ewen, who has been digging geoducks for 50 years. "It's one of life's real joys."

A Navy diver changed the geoduck's fate in the 1960s, when, searching for lost torpedoes near a submarine base in Puget Sound, he discovered geoduck colonies in the icy deep. The state of Washington auctioned the rights to harvest the clams. Brian Hodgson and a group of hunting buddies borrowed money to lease sections of seabed and started selling geoducks to chowder houses in Washington. With a competitive streak and a head for numbers, Hodgson, a former auditor, quickly became the king of the geoduck trade. A Japanese-American business partner helped him make forays into the Far East in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, Chinese consumers had come to relish the clams. From this indelicate creature, a delicacy was born.

"When you break it down there's a taste with geoduck, a freshness," says Jon Rowley, a seafood marketer who helped popularize Alaska's Copper River salmon. With pollution whittling down shellfish beds in Asia, the freshness itself is a commodity. "That taste is the taste of yesteryear," Rowley adds. Consumers pay more for geoducks, pound for pound, than for Puget Sound salmon or Dungeness crab.

Geoduck fishing is heavily regulated, with harvests strictly limited—a perfect recipe for mischief. Hodgson was accused of stealing a million pounds of clams in the 1980s and eventually pleaded guilty. He had underreported harvests, swiped clams from polluted areas that had been placed off-limits and created a map of closed shellfish beds—the "Poacher's Handbook," he called it—which he gave to his divers.

Washington State's Department of Natural Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) have clamped down on geoduck crime, and enforcement officers now monitor legal harvests. But poaching and smuggling continue. Bandits falsify records, stash their stolen geoduck contraband in secret compartments in boat hulls, or employ night-vision goggles to grab thousands of geoducks after dark, when clam fishing is illegal. "We've seen tax evasion, extortion, mail fraud, money laundering, people trading clams for Vicodin—you name it," says Lt. Ed Volz, head of special investigations for WDFW. "There's just tremendous money to be made."

Wildlife authorities have stepped up undercover investigations, spying on geoduck thieves from boats (though some poachers use radar to detect vessels trailing them), conducting surveillance from beaches and using underwater cameras to document thefts. In a sting operation a decade ago, one geoduck dealer paid a hit man $5,000 to rough up a rival who was driving up the wages divers earned digging geoducks. The "hit man"—an informant—recorded the transaction for federal agents. The would-be victim was ushered into hiding and the dealer arrested. Today the informant, too, is in prison, convicted in 2003 of masterminding a new smuggling ring that illegally harvested more than $1 million worth of geoducks.

Like a clear-cut forest, heavily fished wild geoduck beds can take decades to regenerate. That's why a biologist named C. Lynn Goodwin helped figure out an alternative.

Inside a beachfront warehouse on Puget Sound's Dabob Bay, Goodwin led me along a sopping floor to the geoduck trade's newest front: a commercial hatchery. Water piped from Puget Sound sprinkled over a basin resembling an enormous birdbath. It was filled with thousands of pebble-size baby geoducks. The shells, smaller than Goodwin's pinkie nail, couldn't contain the clams' girth. "See how they're sticking their necks out? They're feeding," Goodwin said. The tiny siphons stretched skyward, like sparrow chicks craning toward a worm.

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