OLYMPIA, Wash. — The crew of the Abby Blue is checking in after a busy morning on the water. They’ve pulled up alongside a vessel from the Department of Natural Resources to declare their harvest.
Blain Reeves is in the aquatics division of the DNR, and observes as cage after cage of giant clams are weighed and counted.
“826 pounds. They were working hard.”
We’re out on a 150-acre section of water in South Puget Sound. Around us five other boats are moored. 70 feet below the surface, divers are digging geoducks out of the muck.
Geoducks look like fleshy brownish white globules stuffed into pretty wimpy shells - sort of like a very small overcoat on a fat man. A crew member pulls one out to show me. It’s about 40 years old, he says.
Water squirts from the long neck, or siphon, that sticks out of one side of the shell. It’s about the length of my forearm.
You might call this a middle-aged geoduck. These things can live to be upwards of 150 years old. They spend their whole lives in one place –- buried a few feet below the sand, their long siphons reaching up to suck nutrients out of the water.
Northwestern coastal waters are littered with these creatures, and the DNR carefully manages the 20 to 25 tracts, like this one, that are open for commercial harvest. Geoducks are an abundant resource for Indian tribes as well. And they’re a big money-maker for the state and tribes alike.
In fact, DNR’s revenue from geoducks has more than tripled in the past three years. The increase is mainly because there’s more demand for these clams in China.
A pound of geoduck now sells for around $150 there.
And that has led to a rise in organized crime, poaching and illegal exporting of geoducks in recent years here in Washington.
Mike Cenci heads up enforcement operations on geoduck for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Not long ago, biologists with the state were out checking a tract to see how the stocks were recovering after a recent harvest, Cenci says. They were shocked to see… that they weren’t recovering.
“Over 800,000 pounds of geoduck biomass appeared to be missing.” Cenci says. “That’s at least a $14 million dollar loss. That’s a lot of value in a small area that somebody lined their pockets with.”
When divers went down they reported evidence of recent digging – even though that section had been closed.
Cenci says no one knows exactly how much geoduck is being stolen from Washington waters but he says the thieves are clever.
“Someone who wants to smuggle geoducks will often use tactics that drug smugglers use and so they will secrete the product below deck or in places that is difficult for law enforcement to get to. The product’s not readily visible.”
Cenci’s seen it all. Some poachers will harvest in the middle of the night. Some will harvest during the day legally, but instead of bringing all their clams to the surface to be weighed and paid for, they’ll leave bags of clams underwater and go back and pick them up after dark.
It’s impossible to tell a legally harvested geoduck from a poached one. Documents get falsified. Geoducks make it onto airplanes and are flown to China, almost as soon as they’re harvested.
Cenci has six detectives and 20 officers to cover 29,000 square miles of marine waters — And his agency’s general fund budget has been cut in half since 2008. He says that has an impact on amount of surveillance DFW can provide.
“Unfortunately, because natural resources unlike human beings can’t say ‘hey, we are in trouble. We’re on a serious decline here,’” he says. “We don’t recognize there is a problem until something is almost gone or it’s at the point where it takes decades or centuries to repair. Slow growing, long-lived, valuable. You’re a target for the bad guys.”
The Washington departments of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife have asked state lawmakers for $550,000 to strengthen enforcement.
(Text and audio by Ashley Ahearn, video and photography by Katie Campbell.)
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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