By Margaret Bauman
Geoduck harvesters in Southeast Alaska are anticipating strong markets this year, based on reports that Washington State fisheries are paying $14 to $16 a pound for these large burrowing clams.
“We’re hoping to start the season at $8 to $10 a pound, said Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association in Ketchikan.
“If we could average $10 a pound for the season, everyone would be happy.”
Last year’s fishery, which employed more than 200 people in jobs ranging from diving to processing, was worth an estimated $6 million, Doherty said.
Doherty noted in an interview on the eve of the fishery’s starting date of Oct. 6 that Alaska prices to harvesters for geoducks are tempered by the comparatively higher costs of doing business in Alaska, from getting tenders to the grounds to shipping the live geoducks to Hong Kong.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has set the guideline harvest level for this year’s Southeast Alaska commercial geoduck clam fishery at 557,500 pounds. Fishing areas were to open based on paralytic shellfish poison test results. Weekly PSP results are expected on Monday afternoons, state fisheries officials noted. If sampling is delayed the fishing period may also be delayed up to one day.
In the Ketchikan management area, the sea cucumber fisheries are conducted on Mondays and Tuesday and the geoduck fishery is restricted to Thursdays, assuming those areas have been cleared by PSP testing, Doherty said.
Trident Seafoods and E.C. Phillips in Ketchikan and Absolute Fresh in Sitka purchase the bulk of the harvest, he said.
For the 2010-2011 season, the combined harvest of geoducks, sea cucumbers and red sea urchins in Southeast Alaska garnered harvesters $8,233,773, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game calculations showed.
The harvest of 845,702 geoducks averaged $5.85 a pound for a total ex-vessel value of $4,943,539. The sea cucumber harvest of 1,274,541 pounds, at $2.52 a pound, had an ex-vessel value of $3,211,422, and the red sea urchin harvest of 276,745 pounds, at 28 cents a pound average, was worth $77,489.
Geoducks, the world’s largest burrowing clam, are neither gooey or ducks. They take their name from the Nisqually Indian term meaning “dig deep,” notes Amy Carroll, a publications specialist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Juneau.
Geoducks reach sexual maturity at three years. After five to 10 years, when their weight is between two and four pounds, they are considered harvestable. They continue to grow until they are about 15 years old and can reach weights of 14 pounds.
Wild geoducks reproduce by a method called broadcast spawning. They release eggs and sperm into the water and rely on movement of the water to unite them. Within 40 to 50 days, the immature geoducks slowly burrow into the muddy ocean floor at a rate of about one foot per year. Once they are at about three feet deep, they settle in for life, siphoning plankton into their bodies and siphoning out the remaining water.
This year’s guideline harvest level is less than last year’s because the management plan for geoduck harvests in Southeast Alaska is on a two-year rotation. “We fish half of the beds in one year, half of the beds in the next year, Doherty explained. “It happens that this year’s rotation is less than last year’s rotation.
The average weight of the commercially harvested geoduck is 2.5 to 3 pounds.
Quality is related to the substrate they are in, he said. The whiter the meat, the higher the price it garners in Hong Kong, he said.
To date, climate change does not appear to be affecting the fishery, but increasing numbers of hungry sea otters are, according to Doherty.
“The decline in this year’s GHL is not necessarily due to sea otters, but in the future it seems as if our GHL may be going down because of sea otter predation,” he said.
“They are going to put us out of business. They are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There is no management plan for sea otters. They are eating everything and they have no natural predators,” he said. “They are like the wolves of Southcentral Alaska, but with the wolves there is at least a management plan.”
Recolonization of Sea Otters Affects Geoduck Harvests
While sea otters in Southeast Alaska, unlike those in the Aleutians, are not threatened by orca whales, they once were at the mercy of the fur trade. That was the subject of a presentation by Zachary Hoyt of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences at the 27th annual Wakefield Fisheries Symposium in Anchorage on Sept. 13.
Hoyt noted in his presentation that sea otters were extirpated by the fur trade from Southeast Alaska by the late 1800s.
In the absence of sea otters, macroinvertebrate populations increased and lucrative fisheries developed. In an effort to re-establish sea otters, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game translocated sea otters to Southeast Alaska between 1965 and 1969.
This effort was successful and the sea otter population is currently growing at an exponential rate and expanding in distribution, Hoyt said.
“We examined ADFG biomass survey data collected from the California sea cucumber, red sea urchin and geoduck clam fisheries in southern Southeast Alaska since 1990 and Dungeness crab catch and effort data collected since sea otter reintroduction,” Hoyt said in his abstract for the symposium.
“Evaluation of both fishery survey and catch data demonstrate that in the last 20 years sea otters have impacted commercial fisheries. Since 1993, ADFG has closed 18 dive fishery sub-districts within the red sea urchin, geoduck clam and California sea cucumber fisheries, due in part to presumed sea otter predation. In addition, the Dungeness crab fishery has compressed away from areas with sea otters.”
Hoyt also noted that using sea otter abundance data collected in 1988, 2003 and 2010 that scientists concluded that sea otters are impacting invertebrate fisheries in southern Southeast Alaska and that this reduction in fishing opportunity has impacted several small communities in southern Southeast Alaska.
Margaret Bauman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.