Sun. Jul 21st, 2024

All About Geoduck: The Life of a (Delicious) Oversized Mollusk

We Should All Respect the Geoduck

Wait, stop laughing. This behemoth of a clam is serious business.

Compared to other bivalves, the geoduck flavor is slightly sweet. Like clams and oysters, a fresh geoduck should taste slightly of salt water, but not be fishy. The brininess is due to years spent below the sand.

I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE THINKING.

No, I won’t insist you drag your mind out of the gutter, because frankly everyone thinks it. The geoduck, the animal that accounts for more of Puget Sound’s biomass than any other organism, perhaps Washington’s most idiosyncratic animal, is phallic. It looks like the eggplant emoji; a big ol’ you-know-what.

Let’s all be snotty adolescents for a moment and get our snickers out now. Because compared to the Panopea generosa, we are exactly that, juveniles. Unlike the manila clam and the Pacific oyster and the farmed Atlantic salmon and the walleye and the catfish that live in Washington waters, the geoduck is as native as it comes. Even individually, they’re longtimers—there are geoducks living in the sands of Puget Sound, right this moment, that were filter feeding through the Spanish American War.

By most measures, they’re mighty. Geoducks are the world’s largest burrowing clam, and the first scuba surveys done in the 1960s estimated that they made up 100 million pounds of the living material in Puget Sound. The largest single individual geoduck ever weighed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife topped eight pounds, four times the size of a hefty dungeness crab.

Every Washingtonian benefits from the geoduck, since the state itself auctions off the right to fish for them—but just try finding a plush geoduck next to the orca and salmon stuffies in a souvenir store downtown. When they pop up, it’s usually as a punch line.

The geoduck is due some respect.

THE ONLY BOOK the Seattle Public Library holds about our king of clams, Field Guide to the Geoduck, by David George Gordon, hits a pamphlet-size 48 pages in length. And that’s with a half dozen pages devoted to various relatives of the animal and a few more listing fishing office addresses.

To be fair, there’s not a lot to say for an animal that can’t boast a whale’s grace or a salmon’s epic travels. From the outside it’s simply a big bivalve shell plus a big hunk of meat, including the protruding neck, though inside it does have organs that range from liver and kidney to gonads and gills.

“It’s insane how big they get,” says Sammy Mabe, a Suquamish tribal councilman, fisheries policy liaison, and commercial fisherman. Mabe, who stands 5-foot-11, once dug a geoduck in Agate Pass near Bainbridge Island whose neck—the long skinny part—reached from the ground to his shoulder. Their size made them valuable to Indigenous tribes who subsisted on hunting and fishing “since time immemorial,” says Mabe. Cooked over the fire like salmon, or sometimes crafted into something jerky-like for travel, “one clam could feed so many people.”

A Suquamish diver emerges from a harvest dive.

It’s not so different today. As one of more than 20 Washington tribes with geoduck fishing rights, the Suquamish harvest geoduck that is sold to overseas markets, but a handful are bagged and left in a communal tribal freezer where any elder can take them home to make chowder. Mabe estimates half the tribal members still regularly eat it. The Suquamish may send more boats after crab, he says, but as far as income for the tribe goes, “geoduck tops all.”

The name itself has Indigenous roots—the Nisqually word gweduc means “dig deep”—and they’re not particularly gooey nor ducky. To understand the place the creature holds in contemporary life, consider that most Washington kids know it only from a ditty sung in elementary school choirs and around campfires. “The Gooey Duck Song,” besides misspelling the noble beast’s very name, rattles off everything the geoduck is not: “For he doesn’t have a front and he doesn’t have a back / And he doesn’t know Donald, and he doesn’t go quack.” Few of us care what it actually is.

IN THE WATERS off the north end of the Kitsap Peninsula, a corner called Skunk Bay that sits along woody Foulweather Bluff Preserve, a diver takes a big stride off the deck of the Skookum Fisher, a gillnetter now serving as a geoduck boat. Though he wears a small metal cylinder on his back, that’s merely a “bail-out bottle” for emergencies; he descends 60 feet under the Sound while breathing nitrox-
enriched air through a tube connected to the surface.

The team weigh their haul; at bottom, a squirting geoduck harvested from Puget Sound.

Michael Boudreaux has been diving for geoduck for eight years, but before that he installed buoys underwater and worked salvage jobs for a decade. His dive helmet, yellow and round enough to suggest a Jacques Cousteau throwback, is large enough to accommodate the dreadlocks that cascade to the middle of his back; he hates to get them wet.

Once he hits the bottom, Boudreaux will work at sprinting speed while under three atmospheres of pressure for an hour and a half. “If you walked about, you’d never get any clams. You gotta run. A military crawl at an angle.” Once he spots a show—a dimple that indicates a geoduck is buried in that part of the Sound floor—he moves his stinger, a small thin water jet, to blast sand away from a geoduck neck until he can feel it dislodge.

Per the laws of geoduck commercial wild harvest, divers can’t feel up a clam before deciding to take it, since the animal wouldn’t be able to rebury itself; no take-backs, and the Department of Natural Resources is watching. But experienced harvesters can spot a half-dozen shows ahead and remove dozens of clams in a single dive; today the Skookum Fisher will pull 677 pounds of geoduck from Puget Sound, the weigh-in supervised and recorded by DNR.

On deck, these pro divers are long past giggling at all the suggestive shapes—usually. Fishers admit that every once in a while they’ll text buddies with a photo of a geoduck that’s particularly eggplant emoji–ish. Mostly, they see a number.

That’s what geoducks are: money. The fishers paid the state around $11 per pound to harvest, and most of those 677 pounds will be at Seattle–Tacoma International Airport by nightfall, on a plane to China by morning. There they will most likely be sold in live tanks; at their peak, in the early 2010s, they could go for around $150 per pound in China.

Most geoduck in the world comes from North America’s Pacific Coast, and Washington’s harvest is rivaled only by British Columbia’s. Here state agencies and tribes with treaty fishing rights all jointly manage it, limiting the wild harvest to designated tracts across Puget Sound and to around 2.5 percent of the estimated geoduck present. Auctioning off its half, the state makes around $22 million per year from the wild harvest. Tee-hee all you want; the goofy geoduck is serious business, and not just the wild ones.

IN SEAFOOD, “wild” is usually the watchword. The label comes with connotations, true or not, of something more pure, less artificial. But Tom Bloomfield, whose family grew oysters for five generations, says that while farmed geoduck remains lower volume than the wild harvest, it is by all measures a lot better. He’s grown them since the early 2000s, about a decade after local aquaculture giant Taylor Shellfish was doing its first pilot projects with geoduck. Decades later, it means about a million pounds of geoduck a year and regional fights over which landowners have to look at their plastic pipes poking out of the water in the tidelands.

Wild geoduck can be of any age and must be dug out far underwater; farmed geoduck is harvested when it reaches its optimal state, making it higher quality. What is that state? Well, says Bloomfield with a laugh, “how ribald is your sense of humor?”

To imagine what makes a top geoduck, he says, you can imagine what a guy would want to see in his own, er, member. “You’d want to see something that’s fairly big and proportionate to the body,” he says. “You don’t want to see it old and wrinkled, or shriveled up.” The standards are enough to rival any dating app.

Bloomfield sells his clams to Tacoma’s Alaska Ice Seafoods, which handles the shipping to the market where 95 percent of the world’s giant clams show up, where respect isn’t lacking: China. A string of holidays there from September to February (the Mid-Autumn Festival to Chinese New Year) make it geoduck season.

Geoduck diver Michael Boudreaux, who has worked underwater for decades.

There, the high price is the point. “We might think of showing off as a negative thing in our culture,” says Alaska Ice president Cody Mills. “But in their culture if I buy something expensive for someone it shows I care about them. It shows you value the relationship.” And then there’s that phallic shape again; geoduck, as the story goes, enhances fertility. Mills thinks the younger generation of retail customers probably like it more for the cultural tradition than belief in specific properties.

But a few lucky geoduck do show up on local restaurant plates. Seattle sushi superstar Shiro Kashiba serves a geoduck appetizer, and Nishino in Madison Park used to saute it with mushrooms and aioli. At Olympia’s Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar, geoduck is sliced into sashimi and piled atop lemon slices, pale and sleek.

Like any seafood served straight, it looks a little slimy. But on the palate the geoduck has a beguiling combination of softness and firmness, mild but unmistakable. It has the saltiness of an oyster but is more bitable, more crisp.

Here there’s nothing funny about it. The sheer size of the delicacy, almost enough sashimi to count as an entree, is at odds with its complexity. A food this interesting and local should be a superstar, yet its fame is splintered, strong only among the Indigenous tribal members who make it into rich chowder, the Chinese diners who splurge, and the divers who spend their workdays on Puget Sound’s sandy bottom.

Two hundred years ago, lobster was known as a poor man’s meal, the cockroach of the sea—today it’s shorthand for indulgence. Could the king clam’s day be on the horizon? Perhaps. But odds are we’ll never stop laughing at the geoduck, even if it finally gets its due. Call it human nature.  source


Geoduck clam (Panopea generosa)

The most impressive clam in the Pacific Northwest is the geoduck. The world’s largest burrowing clam, they are extremely abundant in the inland waters of Puget Sound, British Columbia and Alaska, where the subtidal populations support important commercial fisheries.
Geoduck are very popular targets for the recreational fishery but there is limited upland access to beaches that support intertidal populations of geoduck. Tides to harvest intertidal geoduck must be at least -2.0 foot or lower. Recreational harvesters may anticipate large crowds seeking geoduck when these low tides occur at popular state park locations.

Physical description

Photo by WDFW

This 6.53-pound geoduck was discovered by WDFW divers near Discovery Bay.

The geoduck reaches an average size of 2.07 pounds (including the shell) in subtidal waters of Puget Sound (based on surveys of commercial beds before fishing). The average size of recreationally caught geoducks on intertidal public beaches in Puget Sound is 2.47 pounds. The largest geoduck ever weighed and verified by WDFW biologists was a 8.16-pound specimen dug near Adelma Beach in Discovery Bay in year 2000. Much larger specimens have been reported by commercial harvesters. Geoducks grow rapidly, generally reaching 1.5 pounds in three to five years. They attain their maximum size by about 15 years, and can live at least as long as 168 years.

Geographic range

Their range extends from Alaska to Baja California, but they are rarely found along the Pacific coast, and populations are likewise scarce west of Clallam Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Geoduck clams are found buried two to three feet deep in mud, sand, or gravel. The gaping, oblong shell is white with concentric rings, and generally has thin patches of flaky brown covering (periostracum) at the edges. The siphon and mantle are so large that they cannot be withdrawn into the shell.

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Anyone digging for geoducks in Washington must have a valid license that includes shellfish harvest. See the sportfishing rule pamphlet for more information, or visit a license dealer.

Rules and seasons

Information on recreational shellfishing regulations is available in the sportfishing rule pamphlet. Clam seasons are beach specific and may change annually. Current seasons can be located at wdfw.wa.gov/places-to-go/shellfish-beaches or at https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/biotoxin/biotoxin.html .

  • Personal daily limit is first 3 clams dug.
  • All geoducks taken for personal use must be retained by the digger as part of their daily limit, regardless of size or condition.
  • It is illegal to maim, injure or attempt to capture a geoduck by thrusting any instrument through its siphon or to possess only the siphon or neck portion of a geoduck.
  • Recreational geoduck may only be taken by hand or with nonmechanized hand-operated forks, picks, mattocks, rakes, and shovels. A cylindrical can or tube not exceeding 24 inches in diameter may be used to support the hole while digging geoduck.
  • All clam diggers must fill in holes created while digging clams (except razor clams). Beach terrain must be returned to its approximate original condition by clam diggers immediately after harvest.

commercial geoduck fishery also exists; commercial geoduck clam harvest is managed in Washington by the state Department of Natural Resources. WDFW is responsible for biological management and enforcement of WDFW regulations of this valuable resource.

Locations

Natural “beds” of geoducks exist on many public beaches in Washington, but they will seldom be exposed except at tides lower than about -2.0 feet. Only Puget Sound and Hood Canal contain abundant populations of geoducks; they are rarely encountered on the Pacific coast beaches and west of Clallam Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The most popular geoduck beaches include:

The best place to watch experienced geoduck diggers capturing these big clams is Dosewallips State Park.

Geoducks have been observed with underwater video cameras living as deep as 360 feet in Puget Sound, and the vast majority of the population is subtidal. They are not nearly as abundant intertidally, and sport diggers generally find them on beaches only at extreme low tides (lower than -2.0 feet). For this reason, most of the sport digging is restricted to less than 20 tides a year. source

 

Several geoducks in an aquarium. Fresh live seafood for sale at a Chinese supermarket.

 

 

The geoduck is kinda of freaky-looking. . Naomi Tomky except where noted
The geoduck is kinda of freaky-looking. 

Correct pronunciation of the word “geoduck” (a large clam native to the Pacific Northwest) is practically a citizenship test for Northwesterners. It may seem counterintuitive based on the spelling, but you say it “gooey-duck,” and according to the folks at Evergreen State College—whose mascot is the geoduck—the name is derived from a Lushootseed (Native American) word meaning “dig deep.” Once you’re square on the name, it’s difficult to make it two seconds into a discussion of geoduck without somebody mentioning its resemblance to male genitalia.

Let’s be clear: if anything, the geoduck looks like the grotesque, wrinkled schlong of a deformed hippopotamus. Jonathan Swift famously said that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster, but that somebody doesn’t hold a candle to whoever first ate geoduck. Presumably they were either starving to death—and happened to be three feet underground at low tide—or had a morbid sense of curiosity and didn’t mind getting squirted in the face. (Did we mention that they spurt?)

If your mind doesn’t go straight to the love muscle, says Damiana Merryweather, the general manager of Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar’s Queen Anne location, “you’re blind or willfully ignoring it.” But she considers the geoduck’s bizarre appearance a good thing: “Getting people giggling is a good entry point,” she says, to introducing them to the less obvious—but more delicious—attributes of the outlandish animal. Award-winning chef Ethan Stowell of Mkt. and Staple & Fancy describes fresh, raw geoduck as a taste of what “every piece of seafood should be,” praising its ocean-y flavor, sweetness, and clean, vibrant snap.

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Geoduck with cucumber, radish, grapefruit, and fried sage at Anchovies & Olives in Seattle.Geoffrey Smith

To Northwesterners, it tastes like where we live. Even in Seattle, the region’s biggest city, you can smell saltwater breezes through the crisp air; geoduck brings us to those breezes. The phallic clam occupies a curious intersection of local points of pride: love of the natural resources of the area, great food, and being just a little bit weird up in our curious corner of the country. Stowell says, “Something so specific to the Northwest as geoduck demands a level of respect. Anywhere you eat good geoduck, it comes from here, helping to illustrate that the Northwest is an awesome place to cook, live, and eat.”

The brininess and crunchy texture draw chefs to the clams. Most tend to keep preparations simple: it’s already imbued with strong flavors of the sea and blessed with crunch. The geoduck has two parts: a long neck, which pokes out of the shell, sometimes called the siphon, which is often served raw, in a ceviche or crudo preparation, and the much thicker body or breast, which has been sheltered inside the shell. Eric Donnelly of RockCreek Seafood & Spirits prefers to slice the body thickly, pound it out to tenderize it, dust it with flour, and pan-fry, giving it a schnitzel-like texture that retains the sea-infused taste of fresh clams.

Top-notch geoduck weighs about two and a half pounds, has light-colored meat, a long neck, and fetches top dollar—mostly in China. There, says Paul Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms, expensive, imported live seafood is a mark of status at business meetings and gatherings held at restaurants. Geoduck is also considered an aphrodisiac for obvious reasons, though the Chinese name translates to the much more clean-minded “elephant trunk.” It’s often found served in hot pot, though is sometimes fried, salt-and-pepper style, stir-fried with XO sauce, or used to add flavor and texture to congee. Taylor Shellfish now sells about half of their 500,000-700,000 pounds of geoduck each year to China, including nearly all of the highest-quality clams.

After years of enjoying geoduck at local restaurants, we wanted to find out more: How does one farm this strange beast the shape of a giant tumescent wang and what does it take to pull this freaky animal from the ground? What makes a geoduck taste its best? We went to the source to find out, touring Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Washington, where fourth- and fifth-generation shellfish farmers have been planting and harvesting geoducks since 1992.

Breeding Geoduck

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At Taylor Shellfish Farms, the process starts with wild geoducks, harvested by divers from the deep water of lots leased from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. They begin with wild geoducks to keep from possibly altering the gene pool of the wild population. Taylor’s divers pull adult clams from the wild and bring them to the hatchery.

Dave Pederson, the hatchery manager, explains that that, like most clams, each geoduck’s neck has two siphons: the intake, through which they eat, and the outtake, through which they both defecate and release their eggs or sperm. At the hatchery, the adult geoducks are given a diet loaded with high-fat algae (the fat makes for healthier eggs)—and placed in warm water to trick them into thinking it’s time to turn the lights down low and get their baby-making on.

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Developing geoducks spend the early days of their lives in warm, filtered water, eating the best algae, free-floating plankton, and flagellates that Pederson can find. He says that the main limiting factor in the hatchery’s production of geoduck seed is producing enough of their food. Since the ocean has become more acidic, the Taylor team adds carbonate to the water as it comes in to lift the pH of the water to ideal levels.

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Once the geoduck ‘seeds’ are finally large enough to see, they need not just water and food, but also sand. They’ll start to dig into the sand, sticking their tiny necks up and out. Soon it’s time to transfer them to a large barge afloat in a nearby inlet.

Planting Geoduck

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Basically, “we coddle them,” Paul Taylor says when asked why Taylor Shellfish’s geoducks taste so good. After leaving the hatchery and before getting planted in the sand, the geoducks arrive at a special floating raft system designed by Taylor’s in-house engineer. This intermediate home lets the clams grow a little bit larger before they’re planted into the sand, making it more likely that they’ll survive and produce a more consistent crop. Before the raft step was introduced, Taylor’s crew would plant four or five geoducks in each tube in the sand in the hopes of growing one to adulthood, now they plant only three.

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The raft dangles bins full of sand and geoduck seed into the water, giving the tiny clams a chance to grow. Ideally, the clams stay on the raft for three to 12 months, but this year, Taylor has had some slow growers and chosen to leave batches as long as two years. Once the geoducks are declared large enough to transfer, they are hauled up onto the raft and workers use screens to sort the clams by size before moving them to their permanent home on the beach.

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Left alone, a geoduck could live as long as 150 years, but Taylor will likely harvest them after about five years for the best size, taste, and texture. In order to help keep them safe from predators like crabs and diving ducks, the Taylor crew places the geoduck inside a piece of PVC pipe, which protects them until they can dig themselves deeper into the sand. Taylor will remove the pipe to reuse it in a year or two—at that point the geoduck can survive on its own.

Harvesting Geoduck

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A field of geoducks is something like the fireswamp scene in The Princess Bride, only instead of shooting up spouts of fire in random places at random intervals, it’s just little fountains of water. Harvesters look for a tell—the hole where the water shot from, or the tip of a siphon sticking up through the sand.

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When was the last time you coated your arm in rubber and neoprene and plunged it into the sand up to your shoulder while feeling around blindly for a large, penis-shaped stick of flesh? If your job were digging geoducks, the answer would be multiple times a day.

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In order to loosen up the sand—making it easier to plunge your arm in and harder for the geoduck to move—the digger uses a water hose to blast water down into the geoducks’ deep, sandy home. At this point, the digger can reach down into the hole and grab the clam, hopefully by the body rather than the neck, to avoid stressing or damaging the clam.

Harvesters place a rubber band around the shell and body, which keeps tension on the geoduck. “When they’re in the sand,” Paul tells us, “it has the pressure of the sand.” But, once out in the air, “the muscle to keep [the clam] closed is not that strong, so the shell will relax and open up.” This dries out the meat, and makes for less good eating.

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Much of what Taylor Shellfish does to keep the geoducks tasting their best has more to do with logistics than sea life: the clams are put into flowing water as soon as they’re pulled, then transported in trucks that keep them cool, and shipped out the same day of harvest.

Digging Into the Clam

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Chef Kim Sturts serves geoduck crudo on a radish and cucumber salad with avocado puree and radish granita.

Taylor Shellfish Farms ships much of its geoduck live to Asia, but some remains in the U.S., particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where chefs consider it something of a rite of passage to cook. To serve the neck raw, chefs blanch it in boiling water to remove the skin, then slice it very thin, sometimes with crunchy complements like fennel, celery, and radish. Both Stowell and Donnelly like to pair the neck with cucumber: Donnelly pickles the cucumber and adds a black vinegar and soy vinaigrette, while Stowell keeps things simple with good olive oil and a bit of citrus. Serious Eats’ own Chichi Wang describes geoduck as somewhere between “chewy clam and a tender abalone, though crisper in texture than either,” suggesting a combination of sashimi neck and sautéed body if you’re looking to serve geoduck at home.

Damiana Merryweather, the manager of Taylor Shellfish Oyster Bar (the restaurant outlet of the farm), says that they sell about 15 pounds a week of the clams to restaurant guests. She admits that the live geoduck that sits in tanks in the front of the bar can seem to be something of a party trick. But she also sees it as an opportunity to start a conversation with the customer: people see what chef Donnelly calls “this bizarre, phallic-looking bivalve,” say its funny name, and always want to know more about this culinary symbol of the Pacific Northwest—and that’s before they’ve even tasted it. source