Story last updated at 12/30/2009 - 12:13 pm
KETCHIKAN - Homely as they may seem, geoduck clams are fetching a pretty penny for commercial harvest divers in Southeast Alaska this season.
"Prices have been at the highest level I think our geoduck divers have ever gotten for their product," said Phil Doherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association that represents the dive harvest fleet.
Thus far, about 60 dive fishermen have harvested about 448,000 pounds of the large clams from harvest areas during the one-day-per-week openings that began Oct. 1 in Southeast Alaska.
"They started off around $5 a pound, and in recent weeks it's been over $8 a pound," Doherty said, attributing the prices to strong market conditions in China.
"Almost all of the product goes into the Hong Kong market, and it's been a very favorable market," he said.
The geoduck fishery in Southeast is on hiatus during the holidays, and will resume in January with about 170,000 pounds remaining on the combined guideline harvest levels for the region.
When the areas that have GHL left to harvest do reopen, divers will have more time to fish each week, according to Justin Breese, assistant commercial fishery management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"The first part of January starts our two-day-a-week fishery, because most of the pounds have been harvested," Breese said.
Less quota available, combined with the end of the commercial dive fishery for sea cucumbers earlier this month, typically means that fewer divers participate in the geoduck fishery after the new year. That allows for more fishing time for the remaining divers.
"When everyone goes home, some of those divers don't come back," Doherty said. "So we can move on to a two-day-a-week fishery."
Breese said weather has seemed to slow the pace of the fishery since the 2009-10 season began on Oct. 1.
"Last year we started with a one-day-a-week fishery, but there were still several days where the weather was fairly good so it allowed them to be able to harvest between 50,000 and 70,0000 pounds per opening," Breese said. "This year, due to weather, most of the openings have been around the 40,000- to 50,000-pound range, with some all the way down to the 20,000- to 30,000-pound range for our single-day openings."
The open fishing days have seen participation by 45-50 divers, according to Breese.
Southeast Alaska has 21 specific fishing areas potentially available for harvest this season. Most areas are near Ketchikan or off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island.
Fishermen harvest geoducks from a specific harvest area only after a sample of the area's geoducks has been tested and determined to be below a certain level of paralytic shellfish poisoning.
That allows geoducks from that area to be sold into the "live" market that earns a lot more money for divers than do geoducks sold as processed clams.
It's difficult to predict which areas will test above or below the PSP limits ahead of any potential open fishing dates.
However, the fishing areas on the west side of Gravina Island have typically tested "hot," meaning that divers ended up harvesting the clams available from those areas during a "clean-up" fishery late in the season. Those clams are sold into the less-profitable processed market.
"I don't believe we've had any live product go out on the west coast of Gravina in the commercial fishery yet--except for this year," Breese said.
A new area on the southwest end of Gravina near Dall Head was able to open for live harvest earlier this season, according to Breese.
Another area, Nahenta Bay, was able to open for live harvest once, but bad weather prevented fishing there, he said
"Nahenta Bay would have gone out as live product if they could have harvested it," Breese said.
Doherty said there's a "fair possibility" that the remaining harvest available from Gravina Island probably won't be sold as live product.
"Which is too bad, because the market is at such a high peak right now," Doherty said.
Alaska's annual commercial dive catch of between 650,000 to 850,000 pounds of geoducks is small compared to the combined harvest from British Columbia and Washington state that typically ranges from 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds, according to Doherty
Harvest timing in the regions is loosely coordinated to avoid flooding the markets and lowering prices.
A growing middle class and other positive factors in China, which is the primary buyer of geoducks, have been helpful to the Southeast Alaska industry, according to Doherty.
"The market seems to be expanding over there, slowly but surely," he said. "And as we put more product on to the market, the market has been able to absorb it."
That extends to other seafood products sent to China, which is becoming more of a player in what has traditionally been a market driven by Japan, according to Doherty.
The start of the commercial geoduck fishery in Southeast coincided with the commercial dive harvest fishery for sea cucumbers, another species that's most popular in the Far East.
Divers finished landing the region's 1.57 million pound GHL for sea cucumbers on Dec. 1.
Although final prices aren't clear, prices for sea cucumbers, or "cukes," were in the $3 to $3.50 per pound category this season--a range that's about even with or above prices seen during recent years, according to Doherty.
"For the divers, the sea cucumber fishery was a very good fishery, and the first two-thirds or so of the geoduck fishery has a been a good fishery," he said.
The SARDFA office overlooks a portion of the Ketchikan waterfront. Doherty said dive fishing boats are about the only commercial boats he sees on the water at this time of year.
"There is quite a bit of activity with the divers," Doherty said. "There's 60 or more divers in the geoduck fishery. And then the 150 or divers in the sea cucumber fishery--and the majority of the activity is centered around Ketchikan and Craig."