During a partly cloudy sunset, the black silhouette of the four-foot helm standing against the bright orange sky looks picturesque. On a grey winter day, the light blue hull beautifully blends in with the rolling fog.
As the sun comes up over Gig Harbor in the summertime, the glare makes it disappear into the bay. But when the water is calm on a clear day, one can finally get a good look at it in its true form.
The converted oyster barge has become the unofficial, unintentional and unwanted welcome sign to those entering the Key Peninsula while crossing the Purdy Spit.
Complaints about the barge moored off the spit have been made a handful of times to the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Ecology, and the Pierce County Parks and Recreation Department since 2015. As derelict as it may seem, beneath its weatherworn exterior is a silent witness to a short and tumultuous period of the area’s fishing history.
The 22-foot vessel was once a powerful workhorse. In its heyday, it was an A-frame workboat with a winch used for setting 10,000-pound fishing net anchors in the northern part of Puget Sound. Later, with its wide platform, it was perfect for hauling harvested wild shellfish or ferrying around aquaculture equipment. Today it’s a forgotten memory — a relic of a business deal gone bad.
It was 2000, and Doug McRae and his Washington Shellfish, Inc. commercial geoduck business was going through an acquisition phase. If the company wasn’t buying land, it was looking to lease it.
“I had great dreams and high hopes for the business,” said McRae, who recently retired from a nearly 50-year diving career and now lives in Ketchikan, Alaska. “Aquaculture is the future of the world’s food supply. People just don’t know how much food is below the substrate underwater.”
Geoducks may look about as gross as their name sounds, but their flavor makes them a delicacy in the international marketplace where today, according to DNR, top-quality clams can fetch up to $125 a pound. And since thousands can grow in a very small amount of space and each one averages nearly three pounds, it is a lucrative and competitive business.
The geoduck aquaculture business happens on tidelands all around Puget Sound, but McRae favored Carr Inlet, specifically Henderson Bay near the Purdy Spit. He saw that nearly 50 acres of prime tideland along the spit owned by Pierce County Parks and Recreation was going unused while just over the road in Burley Lagoon, the Yamashita family and their Western Oyster business was making a killing in the shellfish industry. The tidelands on both sides of the spit are authorized for commercial shellfish aquaculture under the Bush & Callow Act of 1895.
McRae thought there was no harm in seeing if the county would lease him the land, so he reached out to former Parks and Recreation Director Jan Walcott. After the department determined the value of the land, an attorney wrote up the lease and faxed it to McRae. The terms seemed too good to be true: $2,500 for five years plus $360 annually, renewable for up to 25 years. He signed the lease before anyone could change their mind. In January 2001, after getting all the appropriate signatures — or so Pierce County Parks thought — the lease became valid.
“This property was going to attach a rocketship to us,” he said of his business. McRae’s dreams were quickly coming true.
He used his barge to haul out his patented underwater seed planting machine where a staff of more than 50 people planted a half-million PVC tubes, each containing a baby geoduck. The tubes protect the geoducks from crabs and other predators until they are big enough to dig into the substrate. In less than two years, Washington Shellfish turned a $2,500 lease into $2.5 million of gross income
It was that immediate monetary success that McRae said encouraged three South Sound Native American tribes to get the ear of newly-elected Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg in late 2001.
Ladenburg questioned the validity of the lease since neither he nor his predecessor ever signed it. He issued a cease and desist order keeping McRae and his crew from all beaches, boat ramps and parking areas around the spit. In a 2003 KP News story, Ladenburg went as far as saying McRae was trespassing, even though both parties thought their contract was valid. All remaining tubes, with close to $1 million worth of geoducks inside, were removed and destroyed.
Ladenburg, now a personal injury attorney in Tacoma, stood firm that it was his decision alone to reverse the supposed deal. “I never talked to any of the tribes,” he told KP News. “It was simple; then and now the county should not be leasing county property to commercial enterprises.”
In 2003, after a lengthy and pricey court battle, a judge agreed with Ladenburg and ruled that the county employees who signed the lease had no right to do so. Though his boat stayed afloat, McRae’s dreams for Washington Shellfish started to sink.
“That killed us,” McRae told KP News in January. “(Pierce County) chopped our legs out from underneath us and put us out of business.”
For the next 10 years, McRae continued to use his vessel to pursue commercial fishing ventures and personal diving adventures around the south Puget Sound. But for McRae, once a shellfisherman, always a shellfisherman. Although he was getting older and knew his diving days were numbered, he still had a zest for making money and still knew of a place where he could make it — the Purdy Spit. In 2013, he dipped his feet back into the geoduck game, this time buying land instead of borrowing it.
“What better place for an old man to spend his summers,” he said. McRae bought 10 acres of tidelands about 60 feet offshore, split up by an imaginary lane extending from the Purdy boat launch. As fate would have it, his new property shared a common border with the leased property he lost 10 years earlier.
McRae knew what he was doing. The property was already littered with mature geoducks he planted a decade ago. But to turn this property into profit, he had to get it ready. And along came his barge, complete with equipment to do water testing and other experiments before going through the arduous permitting process.
But things just didn’t turn out the way McRae expected. “Washington State is the anti-place to do business.”
For two years bureaucratic hurdles over permits, or lack thereof, and poaching woes led McRae in 2015 to once again throw in the towel. He was so jaded by this point that he removed the engine from his barge and stopped renewing its registration.
“I just say it’s a floating dock now,” he said about the barge now moored to a cement buoy under the water. “I know it’s ugly and people don’t like to look at it, but it’s on my property.”
McRae’s barge — or floating dock — hasn’t moved since 2015, creating its own lore among locals. He’s still pondering what to do with it. He will sell it if someone is interested in buying it. Or maybe he will bring it up to Ketchikan, a fishing haven, where he moved in 2021. Or maybe he will just leave it moored, as the value of his property continues to increase.
His 10 acres are unique. What is underneath the water is valuable to him, but the surface of the water could be valuable to others. If one small oyster barge seems bothersome, imagine 10 acres of floating homes.
“If (government entities) aren’t going to let me harvest that area, maybe I’ll just build some houses on it,” McRae said.
McRae’s property is considered an airspace condominium, which means something different on land than it does on water. In theory, a developer could use the “airspace” above the water to build a floating home anchored to the owned land below. Not many properties near the KP are classified as airspace condominiums, but it is common in areas like Lake Union in Seattle.
“That’s the direction I’m heading right now,” he said. “The population is increasing and there’s a shortage of housing. A waterfront view like that would be incredible.”
That is not to say McRae’s wants and wishes would mesh well with the Pierce County Shoreline Code, which prohibits a residence over water where one does not currently legally exist. He would have to muster up the strength for one more bureaucratic battle to convince the Pierce County Council and the Department of Ecology to change the code and then have the state legislature approve it.
Though that may be the only way for the Key Peninsula to finally get rid of that barge.
The Key Peninsula News published a four-part series between October 2014 and January 2015 about the history and economics of geoduck farming on the Key Peninsula. Read those stories in the KP News archives at keypennews.org.
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