Lummi fishermen dig deep for geoducks

By John Stark
Bellingham, Washington (AP) 2-08

Cliff Cultee and other Lummi geoduck divers hope to get a chance to harvest the big, meaty clams again this spring.

Geoducks, like all bivalves, are subject to temporary contamination from microorganisms that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. Geoducks in the tribal harvest area near Kingston, off the Kitsap Peninsula, have been off-limits to commercial harvest since last April because toxin levels have been too high.

“Our divers have been waiting ever since last April to get their allowable catch,” Cultee said recently.

Commercial divers harvest about 4 million pounds of geoduck a year, split evenly between tribal and nontribal harvesters according to tribal treaty rights.

The tribes manage that harvest in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Washington Department of Natural Resources, which controls the subtidal areas where most geoducks are found. Biologists believe the geoduck population can sustain that level of harvest, which amounts to less than 3 percent of the clams available.

Clam diggers can manage to get geoducks on just a few days of the year when tides are at their lowest. It’s a task that involves wallowing in tidal mud to extract a creature whose name is a Salish Indian word that means “dig deep.”

Harvesting the clams in quantity means working under water. Cultee, 41, is one of about 15 Lummis who work in water depths of 18 to 70 feet to bring up clams that often weigh two or more pounds. The meat of the geoduck is prized for sushi, among other things, and can bring $10 a pound to the harvester.

As Cultee explained it, each diver is tethered to a support boat by a 300-foot air line and equipped with a high-pressure water jet. The diver moves away from the boat with the tide until the line is played out, and then works his way slowly back to the boat, moving into the tidal current and looking for the telltale tip of the geoduck’s siphon, which looks a little like a pig snout.

He uses the water jet to blast the big clam out of the sand and gravel, being careful not to hit it. The jet’s pressure is strong enough to tear it apart. If conditions are right, the flow of the tidal current will clear away the turbulence the jet stirred up, and the diver grabs the clam.

After less than an hour at 60 feet of depth, divers must surface for two hours to allow their bodies to recover from the pressure effects. That means a diver can make no more than two or three dives in the course of a day. And while a good day could mean a 600-pound harvest, the geoducks are open to harvest just three or four days of the year. The harvest is not all profit.

Besides the cost of the equipment, Lummi divers must travel to the Kingston area for the harvest. Cultee said he hopes a harvesting area could eventually open closer to home, but for now, participating in the geoduck harvest means considerable fuel expense.

Cultee said he and his fellow divers enjoy the experience.

“Our guys look forward to that geoduck fishery,” he said. “It’s lucrative and also fun.”

Cultee said there’s a lot to see underwater: flounders, anemones, wolf eels, octopi, crabs, seals and sea lions.

Harlan James, another Lummi who works as a monitor keeping harvest records during the geoduck dives, said geoducks are just one of the relatively new fisheries that tribal members have learned to live on. Traditional salmon fisheries have dwindled as a result of both declining runs and fisheries treaties that gave a bigger proportion of Fraser River sockeye runs to Canada.

Lummi divers also harvest sea urchins and sea cucumbers for Asian markets. Tribal fishermen also have branched out into crab and halibut fishing, part of the ongoing struggle to diversify and survive.

“Since the (salmon) fisheries have gone down considerably, it becomes a lot more important to survival,” James said. “There<s a lot more crab fishermen because of the lack of a sockeye fishery. You have to do something.”