Geoduck controversy continues unabated


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Chris Fitzgerald, KP News

Deep-water-harvested by commercial divers since before statehood, hunted and dug recreationally at extreme low tide by local seafood enthusiasts, geoduck (pronounced “gooey-duck”) are the largest of the clam species, and native to inland waters of the Pacific Northwest northward to Canada. A distinctively unattractive clam, its siphon overflows its shell; the many decades of its natural lifespan are lived several feet down in tidal mud. About 10 years ago, when commercial shellfish growers discovered lucrative markets for geoduck in Asia, this homely clam, and both the public and private tidelands where it is found, became the equivalent of a present-day Gold Rush.

Commercial geoduck farms either already operational or pending, with more sure to follow, are changing Puget Sound shorelines. Controversy over the aesthetics of the practice and environmental impact of concentrated monoculture planting have resulted in formal hearings, lawsuits, formation of opposition groups,  industry public-relations efforts, and a Pierce County Council resolution requiring a study of the practice.

Wild geoducks occupy “beds” that contain multigenerations of the clam, and compatible organisms: worms, mollusks, anemones and protozoa. Monoculture farms consist of PVC tubes pushed into the mud every square foot of the planting area, into which are dropped at least three paper-clip sized geoducks. In one of two Key Peninsula farming applications (SD 53-05) scheduled for final hearings in late October, 30,000 square feet of private intertidal-zone tidelands would be planted with an equal number of PVC tubes, resulting in a minimum concentration of 90,000 geoducks on a little over one-half acre of tidelands. After growing five or six years, requiring nutrition and expelling waste, they will be harvested at one time (over several days or weeks of “sweeps” of the bed by water jet hoses). What permanent damage is done to organisms when harvesters implode the beach is unknown; what potentially harmful organisms (cysts, eggs and bacteria, all alive but dormant), long buried deep in substrate mud, are released into the water column are also unknown.

At a standing room only community meeting in Rosedale on Oct. 4, area waterfront owners and other concerned citizens viewed slides and heard testimony from waterfront owners in Totten Inlet in Thurston and Mason counties. Ten years ago, that 33-mile stretch of beach came under mussel raft and geoduck cultivation, and had long been a resource for oyster farming. In the ensuing decade, according to meeting speakers (all waterfront owners), the water quality has deteriorated, shellfish companies have erected beach fences to keep residents off, and their once beautiful, quiet beaches have been turned into industrial wastelands where they may not play, wade, beachcomb, fish or boat, for lack of “open” shoreline and clean water. These owners said they came to Pierce County to warn residents that here, too, “World War III can occur without science to provide a carrying capacity (for nutrient waste and flushing)…Once it’s screwed up, it stays screwed up.”

Most of the land mass along this waterway is, according to Henderson Bay Shoreline Association’s Laura Hendricks, high bank and sparsely populated, traveled over by unpaved country lanes and without a commercial/retail area. She has taken over 25 people to Totten Inlet to date, and says when she first saw it, “We didn’t see anything move anywhere. It was the saddest thing I’ve seen in my entire life… It has become nothing but an industrial district.” Hendricks says she has state documents indicating wells and septic systems along that body of water are not a pollution source, as is claimed by Department of Natural Resources’ Jeff Schreck, land manager for the aquaculture leasing program. Even so, Schreck, who admitted he has never visited the entire Totten Inlet site and has not been there at all in over a year, said in an interview, “Totten Inlet is in bad shape; it might go eutrophic.” (Eutrophic waters support an abundance of nutrients fostering dense plant/animal life that decays in warm weather and choke off oxygen to the water, i.e., red tide.) “There is no science,” said Schreck. “We do need science.”

DNR plans to lease two-acre sites in-kind (no fee to the state for farming privileges; Schreck says typical leases average $1,000/acre/yr.) to Taylor Shellfish Farms at four different Puget Sound locations in exchange for scientific monitoring and sampling to be collected by Taylor and analyzed by DNR scientists over a typical five- to six-year crop cycle. (DNR aquatic lease revenues go into the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account to among other things, rehabilitate eelgrass beds, the depletion of which diminish herring, in turn diminishing salmon.) A request by the KP News for contact information to DNR scientists has received no reply to date. Questions from KP News at interviews and and audience participants in meetings as to why existing farms cannot be used to begin science baselines now, in addition to studying an entire plant/harvest cycle beginning to end, remain unanswered.

Schreck says DNR’s goal is to lease 25 acres of tidelands per year over 10 years. This does not equate to 25 sites per year, nor does an acre equal a traditional square or rectangle. In aquaculture, one acre can be “linear” — perhaps 900 feet from side to side and 45 or 50 feet deep (43,560 sq. ft. in one acre).  In this first year of the leasing program, some available sites are located on the Key Peninsula, Harstine Island, Stretch Island, Hood Canal, and Sammamish. Schreck says DNR has “a system of best management practices in place.” (In a previous installment of this series, it was disclosed that many current practices were authored by the shellfish industry itself, or through Pacific Shellfish Institute, a company owned by Taylor Shellfish Farms, a “for profit” business.) According to Schreck, “We’re taking a real close look at who we’re doing business with. There are slobs in the industry and we are just not going to do business with them.” A KP News requested copy of the “standards of best practice” is still outstanding.

At a meeting of Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Puget Sound Partnership last summer, Hendricks met Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms. She asked him how many of the state’s tidelands he planned to lease. According to Hendricks, he said, “I plan to lease all of them. We have the law on our side and we are entitled to come in.” House Bill 2819 provides a clear path through a maze of laws enacted at statehood, repealed, granted “savings” clauses, and repealed again. Ultimately, HB-2819 concludes that “any person who is in possession of property that was conveyed under the Bush or Callow Act (enacted at statehood for growing of oyster beds only) is granted the right to use that property for cultivation of clams or other shellfish.” Testifying in favor of the bill were administrative officers of Taylor Shellfish Farms, Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, Seattle Shellfish, and Department of Natural Resources. (The bill also requires a survey and marker buoys for all beds leased from DNR.)

Concurrently, the Corps of Engineers, through the Departments of the Army and Defense, printed in the Federal Register on Sept. 26 its notice of intent to issue a new nationwide permit (NWP) for commercial shellfish aquaculture activities. In part, the notice reads: “Examples of commercial shellfish species for which this NWP could be used… include oysters, clams, geoducks, mussels, and scallops…We feel the potential for adverse environmental impacts from existing operations is minimal… The project area may include areas in which there has been no previous aquaculture activity…”

The NWP also provides for new commercial shellfish aquaculture activities or modification of existing commercial facilities by “individual permits or regional general permits.” The Corps is “requesting comments on the potential beneficial and adverse effects that commercial shellfish aquaculture activities have on the aquatic environment… including appropriateness of attempting… these operations in terms of acres, ecosystem health, shellfish productivity,” and allows only 60 days (deadline is Nov. 27) for citizen input. With apparent consensus among federal, state and local jurisdictions that the shellfish industry lacks adequate science to guarantee no repeat of Totten Inlet, a statement in the “Tidings” newsletter from Citizens for a Healthy Bay is timely: “Solving problems is one thing; preventing them is a lot easier and certainly cheaper, as we found out in Commencement Bay some $400 million into a Superfund cleanup.”