June 10, 2008 · Updated 4:17 PM
t Crazy-looking clam is num, num, nummy.
PORT GAMBLE Geoducks, the largest burrowing clam in the world, are native to the Pacific Northwest. Oddly resembling an elephant trunk protruding from a mollusk shell, its not a prized culinary delectable on local menus but its all the rage in mainland China.
The top-grade geoducks are almost exclusively exported to China, alive, said Tony Forsman, Shellfish Coordinator for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The nice thing about geoducks, when packed correctly and kept damp, they stay alive for four days, which is just enough time to get them there.
Although the delicacy (which is often eaten raw and sliced thin) is sought across the world, harvesting is a lucrative, dangerous business with risk of poachers, said Tamara Gage, shellfish program manager for the Port Gamble SKlallam Tribe.
Near Port Gamble Bay, there are two geoduck tracks available for harvesting. A third is currently closed from pollution by sewer out-fall from the Port Gamble township.
The harvest is open to 60 divers from the Port Gamble SKlallam Tribe, said Gage. Its limited enough so people can make some money off of it.
Geoduck harvesting makes up one-third of the $3 million dollar income accumulated from tribal members harvesting shellfish. It is the most valuable commodity above oysters, crabs, clams, shrimp and finfish, respectively, according to the tribes Natural Resources Departments Review of Harvest Parameters for 2003-2006.
Under a 1994 court ruling by Judge Edward Rafeedie, Native American tribes were established as co-managers of shellfish harvests and a treaty-reserved right to 50 percent of the harvestable shellfish in inter-tidal and subtidal waters.
Washington state contracts the other 50 percent out to high-bidding businessmen, who in turn contract divers, said Jeremy Sullivan, 34, geoduck diver and information manager of the computer support department for the Port Gamble SKlallam Tribe.
The harvest has to be done in a sustainable way as geoducks life spans can be more than 160 years, according to a press release posted on the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission Web site. Each year 2.7 percent of total geoduck biomass is divided in half to determine how much the state and tribes can harvest, Gage said. In 2007 the total geoduck biomass in Hood Canal was about 40 million.
Most people confuse horse clams with geoducks, said Port Gamble SKlallam Tribal Chairman Ron Charles. But horse clams only go about four feet deep.
Divers, armed with a pressured water hose and surface supplied air, dive to depths of 60 feet in the Hood Canal waters to collect the soft-shelled clam.
Its so black down there at 50-60 feet, Charles said. You may not even see whats coming straight at you, or at your side, or back.
About three months ago a man from a tribe on the lower Elwah was bit by a six-gill shark just outside of Port Gamble Bay.
The sharks are not supposed to be out here, Charles said. It happened about the same time one was found dead in Poulsbo.
Other dangers include gray whales.
You wont even see them before they set right down on top of you, Charles said.
But the dangers are worth it to the geoduck divers, reaping $5-$11 per pound, depending on wholesale market prices.
Geoducks near Port Gamble Bay vary in weight. Those in the Port Gamble Inside track, located inside the bay, average 3.7 pounds each, while those in the Point Julia track, located north of the bay, average 1.5 pounds each.
Geoducks in the Port Gamble Track also average 1.5 pounds each, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site.
If (divers are) smart they play the market, Charles said. Then they harvest when the market is high.