Millions Of Dollars in Geoducks Stolen From Wash. Waters

Feb 29, 2012

SEATTLE, Wash. -- Here’s some trivia – name the natural resource that provided 28 million dollars to the state of Washington last year. Nope, not timber.

Think shellfish… but not just any shellfish. Geoducks. These huge, funny-looking clams are harvested wild from below the surface of Puget Sound - and they’re fetching high prices in Asia. Ashley Ahearn reports.

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.

Blain Reeves: "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.

Once the crew finds out I’ve never seen a real geoduck up close, they quickly shove one into my hands.

Ashley Ahearn: "Oh my God." (laughing)

Crew Member: "Be careful they spit and they have teeth or fangs.” (Laughing)

For the record, geoducks do not have teeth or fangs. But they do squirt water through long fleshy siphons – that can extend as long as your arm.

Their bodies are brownish white globules stuffed into pretty wimpy shells that look sort of like a very small overcoat on a fat man.

Ashley Ahearn: “So how old is this one?

Crew Member: "40 years? Yeah I’d say about 40 years.”

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. They’re an abundant resource for tribes as well as the state – and a big moneymaker.

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.

And that has led to a rise in organized crime, poaching and illegal exports of geoducks in recent years.

Mike Cenci heads up enforcement operations on geoduck for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He says that not long ago biologists with the state were out checking a tract to see how the stocks were recovering after a recent harvest. They were shocked to see… that they weren’t recovering.

Cenci: “Over 800,000 pounds of geoduck biomass appeared to be missing. That’s about a $21 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.

Cenci: “Someone who wants to smuggle geoducks will often use tactics that drug smugglers use and so they will secret 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 water - And his agency’s funding has been cut in half since 2008.

Cenci: “Unfortunately, because natural resources unlike human beings can’t say ‘hey, we are in trouble. We’re on a serious decline here. 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 Department of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife have asked for $550,000 in the current House budget to strengthen enforcement.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network