Large Shellfish Earn Northwestern US Producers Large Profits in Asia

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by Sarah Wang
Harvesting geoducks is a laborious and complicated task, but their value on the Asian market makes these efforts worth it. Image: W&T Seafood.

Fans of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman or Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe may remember episodes where the hosts harvested shellfish in the United States’ Pacific Northwest whose appearance left something to be desired. Despite their unappetizing appearance, geoducks (pronounced “gooey ducks”), a large clam that buries deep in the sand, are viewed as a culinary delicacy in Asia.

In 2014, the United States exported over 11 million pounds of geoducks at a value of $74 million, to China and Hong Kong alone, roughly double the amount that was exported in 2008. These numbers represent a bounce back for the US geoduck industry, which faced a hard winter in 2013 following a temporary import ban by China after trace amounts of arsenic were found in shipments from the United States. In May 2014, China lifted the ban after 5 months and exports to China resumed. In Asia, geoducks can sell for up to $100 per individual shellfish.

The state of Washington accounts for 90% of global geoduck aquaculture. Harvesting wild geoducks is still the predominant method for bringing them to market, and that industry is also focused in the Pacific Northwest. To try and keep pace with increasing demand, Washington recently leased roughly 15 acres of public tidelands for the first time to geoduck farmers to increase production. There are concerns about possible environmental impacts, though state authorities are conducting a study to assess this, with an eye towards expanding production even further as China’s demand continues to grow.

Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Washington is one of the leading shellfish producers in Western Washington. Roughly half of all geoducks farmed there are exported to China and Hong Kong. Taylor Shellfish Farms even has a distribution facility in Hong Kong for many of its shellfish products, which are then sent to 13 countries in Asia. Farmed geoducks are preferred to wild ones in China and Hong Kong for their consistent availability, quality, and size, according to Bill Dewey, Taylor Farms’ Public Policy and Communications Director. They are also quite popular in the United States, especially in Chinese American communities such as in New York and San Francisco.

Demand in Asia is strong enough to keep geoduck prices stable, even with competition from Canadian producers. Due to their long growing period, usually around six to seven years, having a reliably consistent demand is critical for geoduck farmers.  A black market for the shellfish in China, as well as high tariffs there on imports from the US, have represented challenges for farmers in Washington, but the high value of their product  makes those challenges somewhat surmountable. Barring unforeseen obstacles or another Chinese ban, production and exports to Asia are both expected to continue growing. 

Sarah Wang is the Event Coordinator and Project Assistant at the East-West Center in Washington.