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House Bill could expand geoduck farming to Gulf

Allows transfer of geoduck spat to farms outside Southeast

Posted: February 15, 2012 - 1:03am
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer presents his bill, House Bill No. 60, to the Senate Resources Committee on Monday. The bill, which had passed through the House prior to its unanimous passage through Senate Resources, would allow Alutiiq Pride shellfish hatchery to sell juvenile geoduck spat to farms in southcentral Alaska. Currently spat are limited for sell to farms in southeast Alaska. The bill was moved to the Senate Finance Committee.  Russell Stigall / Juneau Empire
Russell Stigall / Juneau Empire
Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer presents his bill, House Bill No. 60, to the Senate Resources Committee on Monday. The bill, which had passed through the House prior to its unanimous passage through Senate Resources, would allow Alutiiq Pride shellfish hatchery to sell juvenile geoduck spat to farms in southcentral Alaska. Currently spat are limited for sell to farms in southeast Alaska. The bill was moved to the Senate Finance Committee.

To look at the awkward-looking clam whose name is pronounced “gooey duck,” one would wonder why consumers would pay such good prices for its long foot. The name is Native American in origin and describes the effort of humans and otters to dig them out.

Geoduck is also a valuable wild and farmed fishery in Southeast Alaska. Currently the region enjoys a near monopoly on geoduck farming in Alaska as the Alaska Department of Fish & Game currently prohibits shipment of juvenile geoduck clams to non-native habitats, such as the Gulf of Alaska.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, would change state statutes to allow farmers in Southcentral areas like Seldovia, Port Graham and Nonwalik to receive and raise geoduck clams.

Seaton presented House Bill 60 to the Senate Resources Committee on Monday.

During his presentation, Seaton said geoduck farming is relatively hands-off. After they are buried in the seabed — harvesters can dig down through three feet of mud to remove geoduck — they require no maintenance until harvest, he said.

From receipt of the spat, “seven years and you are in harvest mode,” Seaton said.

Seaton said the bill aims to avoid conflict with recreational and commercial users in farmed areas by limiting farming to sub-tidal and non-intertidal areas.

The bill does not exempt new farms from any existing regulations on health and safety of geoduck farming.

These measures and others to genetically isolate farmed geoduck have resolved Fish & Game’s reluctance to permit farms in the Gulf of Alaska, Seaton said.

Geoducks are large bivalves. Beloved by sea otters and brave humans, they resemble the head of a baby elephant with shells for ears, among other things.

They are described as having a texture somewhere between clam and chicken with a flavor described as “ocean.”

The bivalve’s lifespan can exceed 150 years and a single geoduck can grow to a dozen pounds or more, however farmers typically sell the clam at 2 pounds.

Alutiiq Pride currently provides shellfish only to Southeast Alaska.

The bill would allow the Seward-based shellfish hatchery to expand its market.

Jeff Hetrick, Director of Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, said his organization is often frustrated by a double standard by ADF&G concerning shipment of bivalve spat — oysters, Hetrick said in written testimony, can be shipped to non-native habitats while geoducks often can not.

Geoducks fetch a good price, $12 per pound or more, and 846,000 geoducks were harvested in Alaska in 2010-2011.

Paul Fuhs, with Project Development Strategies, said the first geoducks from decade-old leases are coming to market at a great time.

“The market has just gone off the deep end,” Fuhs said quoting sales of $21 a pound.

Roger Painter with the Alaska Shellfish Growers Association said farmers need start working with the clams to find out if the bivalve will thrive in the new habitat.

“I think it can be successful, but you don’t know until you put the animals in the ground,” Painter said. “Passing legislation could spur Fish & Game to start a study.”

At first a Gulf farmer would start a small proof of concept plot. The minimal size of an economically viable farm is generally accepted to be 2 acres. However, a farmer can raise hundreds of thousands of the 2-pound mollusks per acre, Painter said.

Getting them out of the ground is not easy though, Painter said.

“You use a water jet to loosen the soil and then wrestle the animal out,” Painter said. “You’re going to be tired, you’re in 14 feet of water.”

The good price for geoducks will allow more areas to be financially feasible for farming, Painter said.

Farm habitat is limited as it requires contiguous, gentle sandy bottoms and light gravel bottoms.

Painter said his association is working with SeaLife Center in Seward and local dive shops to develop a proof of concept in Resurrection Bay.

The statute change is not expected to come at a financial cost the state of Alaska.

HB 60 passed the Senate Resources Committee unanimously. It is next scheduled to be heard in Senate Finance.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

 

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