Southeast Alaska's commercial divers should find more opportunities to put lucrative, live geoduck clams on the market this winter under a new health-testing plan.
An agreement this fall between the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Southeast Regional Dive Fisheries Association is changing the way the state tests the giant clams for paralytic shellfish poisoning.
PSP is a serious illness caused by toxins that concentrate in clams, mussels, geoducks, oysters, snails and scallops. It can be fatal.
"We're trying to do more of a wide-scale sampling of all harvest areas for seven months," said SARDFA Executive Director Julie Decker, "to see the trends, to use (the data) in the future and also to use it for an in-season management of what's going on with PSP."
Geoducks (pronounced "gooeyducks") are large, long-necked clams that are popular in Asia and used in soups and sushi. Most geoducks from Alaska are processed and frozen, but live geoducks bring higher prices. The overall fishermen's price for geoducks last year was 72 cents a pound, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. Live geoducks can bring from $7 to $10 a pound.
In the past, divers have sent geoducks to the state lab in Palmer for PSP testing and waited to see if they could sell them live. Under the new program, fishing areas will be tested monthly, even before the season starts.
Beginning in January, areas with geoducks that fall within the state's guidelines for PSP will be tested once a week. If three weekly tests in a row come up clean, divers can harvest for live sales as testing continues, said Mike Ostasz, DEC shellfish program manager. PSP toxin concentrates in the visceral ball of geoducks, which is removed in processing, Ostasz said.
The new procedures bring Alaska in line with places such as Washington state and British Columbia, where live harvests are more common, Decker said.
"It's test first, fish next," she said. "Basically we're working to be more like Washington and B.C. and we've made it one step closer to that."
Southeast Alaska's geoduck fishery is centered around Sitka, Ketchikan and Craig. This season, 382,100 pounds will be available for harvest by 104 permit holders. Last season, 37 permit holders harvested 283,404 pounds, according to Fish and Game.
The new PSP procedures have brought management changes, said Marc Pritchett, a dive fisheries biologist with Fish and Game. Using the up-front PSP information, the department will open an area after two consecutive weeks of passing tests. If a third weekly test doesn't meet standards for live harvests, the area still will be opened for processed sales, he said.
"Giving a full seven-day notice will allow the DEC to do one more weekly test prior to opening for fishing," he said. "We'll still open the fishery. Because of the remoteness of the areas, we don't want to open them and then shut them down."
The department will ask the state Board of Fisheries in January for guidance on the changes, Pritchett said.
SARDFA, the dive association, will ask the Board of Fisheries to give the department the option to manage based on PSP levels, Decker said. Divers would like to see as much live harvest as possible, she said.
"If one area in particular looks like it may be hot (with high PSP levels) all the time, in that area we're never going to get live product," she said. "The industry and Fish and Game could agree to do it for processed (geoducks). We want to maximize the amount we can get out live."
The new monitoring plan came after a conference in Anchorage in August that included the industry, Fish and Game, health officials from Alaska and Washington state, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Program, among others.
Casey Bakker, a diver and SARDFA board member who participated in the discussion, said it has been a long, but rewarding, process to get the changes.
"For the state of Alaska, you can now ship geoducks live, which is how the market wants to receive them. The Chinese prefer them live," he said. "The value of the fishery will be increased in Alaska. Essentially it could be ten-fold."
Grants from state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped get the new program off the ground, Decker said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.