Viagra on the Half Shell

Dreamers, schemers, and scientists try to catch and cultivate the Northwest's most potent icon.

ON A WINTRY MOONLIT night on Totten Inlet at Puget Sound's southern tip, a reformed screenwriter named Jim Gibbons is standing ankle-deep in the wash, contemplating thousands of sawed-off PVC plastic tubes that gleam, white and uniform as military gravestones, against the muck. He's also standing in the vanguard of the latest entrepreneurial frenzy to seize a region and an industry given to booms and busts. And he's on the front line of an aquacultural "blue revolution" that, depending on whom you listen to, will help save the seas from overfishing and humanity from hunger or ravage the world's coasts just as reckless agriculture has its uplands.

At the moment, however, he's thinking more prosaic thoughts: How can he help the tender little clams planted inside these tubes survive ravenous crabs, abrasive sand dollars, and suffocating silt to become giant geoducks? How long until other growers notice how much money can be made from these ugly critters and crowd the tideflats and markets? How long till the Chinese or Japanese figure out how to grow their own damn geoducks? And why are so many conspicuous consumers in Shanghai willing to pay $50 or $100 for an oversized clam that used to be cheap chowder meat? Might it have something to do with the way geoducks look?

That look, so evocative both of an elephant's trunk and of elephant-mating footage on TV nature shows (geoducks cannot retract into their undersized shells), used to draw blushes and giggles from the tourists at the Pike Place Market—back when the clams were cheap enough to be sold at the Market. But looks are only one of many remarkable attributes of the clam that the native Nisquallies called gweduc and later generations of Northwesterners came to know as simply "ducks." Contrary to fairly common belief, gweduc is not the world's largest clam; the tropical Pacific giant clam grows much larger. But it is the largest burrowing bivalve, digging its way three or more feet down into the muck and sand and growing its celebrated dual-siphon neck in order to reach the oxygen and phytoplankton in the waters above. Once dug in they root for life, which can be a very, very long time.

Adult geoducks suffer no known diseases and can easily outlive the humans who prey on them; one had 146 annual growth rings on its shell. They may reach 20 pounds, though seven is more typical and two a common harvest size. One local clammer claims to have dug a 17-pounder out from five and a half feet deep, with a helper holding his feet.

Gweduc were a staple of the Northwest Indians (some of whom say today, "When the tide's out, the refrigerator door's open"). For the whites along Puget Sound, they were cheap, delicious chowder meat.

No more. In the mid-'80s, geoduck became a sushi staple and Japanese buyers priced out local vendors. Then China's nouveau riche discovered the outlandish-looking clam and outbid the Japanese. Word filtered back of Hong Kong diners paying $100 to choose their live geoducks from restaurant tanks. Wholesale prices shot up to $12 a pound before settling down to a still-hefty $6 to $8.50, depending on quality. The state of Washington, which owns subtidal lands, takes in over $6 million a year by leasing out geoduck concessions to divers, who blow away the enclosing mud with high-powered compressors. Indian tribes make millions more.

This boom brought the first signs of overfishing and a new Wild West-style crime: geoduck rustling for the thriving black market. In 1997, a Las Vegas seafood broker was convicted of buying $330,000 worth of poached geoduck and hiring an attacker to punish a rival broker for bidding up the price of the clams. In 1998, in a case promptly dubbed "Clamscam," six men were convicted of stealing ducks from state lands.

But rustlers weren't the only adventurers lured by the windfall; Puget Sound shellfish growers dreamed of adding geoduck to the oysters, mussels, and other clams they already grew. The problem, as former state shellfish biologist Lynn Goodwin recalls, was that "very little was known about the biology of the geoduck." Despite their lurid looks, ducks are notoriously finicky and unpredictable breeders. Nevertheless, in the mid-'60s, state biologists set out to unravel the geoduck's mysteries; by the early '90s they'd found the fine balance of temperature, algal nutrients, and other conditions that may, with luck, induce ducks to breed and their larvae to grow.

Private growers and speculators have had mixed success putting these findings to work. "I haven't sold a geoduck yet," laments one local shellfish pioneer, Don Dahman, who breeds the clams in his own hatchery but finds that the nutrient-rich waters he draws from Totten Inlet smother many of the delicate larvae.

Dahman's much larger neighbor, Taylor Shellfish, a third-generation family firm with 250 employees, has fared better. Taylor's secret is the cold, pure water its hatchery draws from a deep pipe in Hood Canal. The sprawling hatchery, which also breeds oysters, scallops, and other clams, is ready-made for a horror-movie set; once, for fun, the crew even completed the effect with dry ice. Scores of translucent plastic and fiberglass tanks, from 400 to 8,000 liters in size, bubble like a primordial soup. Lit from above, they glow in a rainbow of autumnal hues, gold and sienna and musty green—the colors of the various algae meticulously cultured to feed the millions of microscopic shellfish larvae. As he checks for protozoan invasions that might wipe out the larvae, hatchery technician Brian Williamson describes the travails of shellfish breeding with paternal pride and chagrin. Manila clams go at breeding as avidly as sailors on shore leave, but geoducks are much more shy, Williamson explains. "Geoducks are the most difficult of all, after the rock scallops, and those are really temperamental." Temperature, salinity, oxygen, and nutrient loads—all must be just right to set the mood and then nurture the infant ducks, and still those may perish for no evident reason.

Lunatics and hermaphrodites

Even as sturdy adults, geoducks remain unpredictable. Once their sex is known, adults are kept in separate tanks until they're to be bred; the Johnny Wad among Taylor's scores of breeders, a duck whose impossible neck stretched a full length past those of its tankmates, was a female. For now, anyway. Earlier, Williamson and his colleagues puzzled over one female that turned up in the male tank, then showed as a male among the female—till they realized it was a hermaphrodite, the first geoduck gender-switcher ever reported. They were more even surprised to discover that unlike other clams, which seem indifferent to lunar cycles, geoducks are lunatics: "The large ones spawn every two weeks—on the new moon and full moon. We just found that out one and a half years ago. We checked the calendar, and sure enough, we can go by that."

Out of such moonlit encounters, many geoducks grow: over 3 million spat a year from the Taylor hatchery. Would-be growers are eager to buy whatever Taylor doesn't plant itself, but so far the company has only had enough surplus to supply Gibbons. And that's what brings him to the tideflats on a teeth-chattering January night; his crews must plant, tend, and harvest the clams when they can get at them, on low minus tides—which occur around midnight. The spat is set inside a foot-long section of four-inch PVC drainpipe, which is pounded into the sand with fine mesh stapled over the top. This protects the young clams from starfish, moon snails, and, especially crabs, until they can dig down to safety (when the tubes are removed). "Fifteen inches down," says Gibbons. "My biologist calls that the 'depth refuge.' I call what's above it 'the death zone.'"

Gibbons expects 60 percent to survive, and extrapolates from there. "If we master this, we could do as much as 40,000 pounds an acre per year"—10 times what shrimp farmers grow per acre. This September Gibbons plans to harvest his first crop; he hopes the ducks will reach the prime market weight of two pounds by then. If prices hold and he can get the bright, white-fleshed clams Asian customers prefer (age and muddy conditions turn them dark), a prime acre of geoducks could gross $2 million in six years. After toiling for years in the thankless fields of freelance writing—turning out screenplays that no one produced and a book that not enough people bought—Jim Gibbons hopes to get rich off clams.

At first, just after he started trying to grow ducks in 1996, Gibbons feared that too many other would-be clam tycoons would likewise rush in. Now he's more sanguine about the prospect of competition, for three reasons. First, the clam rush he feared hasn't happened; maybe everyone else with dollar signs in his eyes is still trying to start the next big dot-com. Second, whoever wants to get in can't get the seed—and as Dahman can testify, producing your own is no easy trick. And third, raising the little spats up to mighty clams is proving even trickier than Gibbons thought: "We learned a lot last summer," he says, with a look that suggests this knowledge did not come easily. "The upside is it will be that much harder for anyone else to copy us."

And the market keeps growing, fueled by Asia's economic recovery. Gibbons worries about geoduck growers glutting the market, just as salmon growers have, but Asian buyers tell him not worry. His production goal "isn't much for China," says Erfeng Li, a broker from Los Angeles who happens to be touring Gibbons' operation with a representative of a Shanghai conglomerate when I visit. "We have one city, Shanghai, that can eat that much." As they say in Shanghai, keep clam.

Green geoducks

But up in Vancouver, BC, another start-up geoduck grower looks forward to a day when geoduck will be cheap and commonplace, a basic protein source. Eric Gant was diving for wild clams when he started getting big ideas about the sheer "biomass potential" of geoduck—and getting frustrated at what he calls "the impossibility of fishing to ever realize that potential." State and provincial resource agencies try to limit harvests to sustainable levels; Washington excludes from harvest about four-fifths of an estimated billion pounds of geoduck in its waters—everything growing at more than 60 or less than 15 feet deep, plus Puget Sound's eastern shore—and lets divers take about 2.5 percent of what's left, about 4.5 million pounds. Caution makes sense, because geoducks grow back so slowly.

Gant's company hopes to speed the process by incubating geoducks until they're a half-inch long (about four times as big as Taylor's and Gibbons' seed) and then scattering them from boats over harvested beds—forgoing the costly, labor-intensive tube planting. The idea is that enough of the bigger babies will dig into the sand fast enough to escape crabs and other geoduck nemeses.

Gant and his partners—who include other geoduck divers looking for a steadier supply—will try to prove this idea on a few clammed-out trial plots. From this modest start, he foresees growing mountains of succulent duck: "There's the potential in British Columbia for over 100 million pounds a year—if government gets out of the way and gives us the sites we need. We're the pilot fish for a new industry." Why not? The Chinese grow billions of pounds of oysters and manila clams each year. At that scale, geoduck would become a commodity—and, Gant insists, also remain a gourmet treat. "Lower grades would go to Campbell's," he predicts, while Asia's high rollers would still bid up the showpiece ducks. In between, we might see ads for "the other other white meat." And, of course, more sensational geoduck pitches on late-night TV.

Best of all, Gibbons argues, all this would come from "a critter that actually cleans the water" rather than fouling it as ill-planned, over-stocked shrimp and salmon farms have in the Northwest and around the world. "We don't have to feed them, we don't have to medicate them," he notes. "They're at the bottom of the food chain—they only eat up phytoplankton." And such plankton, nourished by fertilizer and septic run-off, is smothering South Puget Sound and countless other water bodies facing rapid development. Indeed, filter-feeding bivalves are net consumers rather than producers of pollution. Of course, even shellfish may leave beds of detritus when they're thickly planted on rafts, as mussels are. But that's not a problem when clams are grown in natural beds.

Of course, too many clams might clean the water too much, as runaway zebra mussels have in the Great Lakes, starving other plankton eaters. Overseeding could also make the crowded ducks vulnerable to parasites. And fishery authorities worry that vast numbers of geoducks grown from a narrow breed stock could corrupt the wild gene pools. Therefore, Taylor Shellfish and University of Washington researchers are developing sterile triploid geoducks (which have triple the usual chromosome set and can only shoot blanks).

Despite those (apparently surmountable) hurdles, Gant boasts, "I know of no other aquacultural operation in the world as sound as ours." That may not be an ideal boast. David Ellis, director of the Vancouver-based Fish for Life Foundation, is a fierce critic of industrial fishing and aquaculture and author of a harsh report from the Suzuki Foundation on BC's salmon farming. But, he declares, "I am all for shellfish aquaculture and for well-.managed wild shellfish fisheries."

And so the king—or queen, or hermaphroditic combination—of clams might feed the world, leave the waters clean, and provide the masses the amusement once enjoyed only by Pike Place tourists. Jim Gibbons puzzles over one question in the meantime: Why will the Chinese—a people famous for the uses they make of rhino horn, tiger testicles, and other exotic animal parts—pay so much for a weird clam? Is it because of tonic or aphrodisiac qualities associated with its anatomical evocations? I was there when he put the question to Hua Qian Hong, a prospective investor from Shanghai. "Oh, no, no, we just like it because it tastes good," says Hua.

On such matters, however, women may speak more frankly than men. Gibbons recounts, "One of the top brokers came over with his wife. I asked if I could pose a rather blunt question. He said 'Sure,' thinking I meant a business question. I asked if it was true that people over there liked geoduck so much because it looked like a penis. He shook his head, but his wife laughed and waved her hand and said, 'Of course it is!'"

 
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