Commercial harvesting of geoducks started in British Columbia, Canada in 1976 as an open access, low value fishery providing frozen product to the marketplace. Since then, the fishery has developed into a highly specialized, sustainable industry that offers a premium live product to international markets.
In Canada, geoducks are harvested by members of the Underwater Harvesters Association (UHA) with each of the fishery’s 55 licence holders assigned an individual vessel quota annually (maximum amount of geoduck permitted for a sustainable harvest that year).
Since 1976, key changes to the fishery have been implemented to ensure the sustainability of the resource and also maximize the market value. First, in 1979 entry to the fishery was limited to 55 licences and total allowable catches were introduced based on a fixed harvest rate of the original biomass (population). Coast wide landings (pounds harvested) in this new fishery rose steadily until 1987 when improved scientific assessments determined that the quotas were being set too high and reductions in quotas were required and implemented to ensure sustainability.
Then in 1989 with the lobbying of the UHA, the fishery switched to an individual vessel quota (IVQ) system to further facilitate the development of a live market. Under the IVQ system, each license is allotted a share of the annual allowable catch. Plus fishermen receive maximum value for their product by working closely with their buyers and timing their harvest to match optimal market conditions, not by simply harvesting more product faster than other vessels during "shot gun" openings. In addition, shipping live product to market garnered higher prices per product pound.
Today, the commercial geoduck clam fishery is one of the most valuable invertebrate fisheries in British Columbia with the annual harvest of over 1,500 tonnes (3.3 million lbs) providing an average wholesale value of $47 million per year. The success of the fishery is attributed in part to the adoption of the IVQ system as well as the development of a live market. All members ensure that premium product quality and value is maintained as they harvest each geoduck individually with great skill, care and pride.
Geoducks are harvested by highly skilled divers who work from vessels in the remote, pristine waters along the coast of British Columbia. Divers work at depths of 10 to 20 metres, moving along the ocean floor looking for a geoduck show (the tip of a siphon or a dimple in the sand made by the tip of a siphon). When a diver finds a show, he uses a stinger (a nozzle with high-pressure water pumped down from the boat) to liquefy the sand around the clam. The clam is then carefully pulled out and gently placed in a bag that is clipped to the diver’s waist. When the bag is full, the diver signals the crew to hoist the bag up to the deck of the vessel.
Once on-board, the geoducks are gently emptied from the bag onto a cushioned sorting table where the clams are banded to prevent the shell from gaping and help keep the clam alive. They are then placed into cages with liners that separate each layer of product to avoid marking and prevent breakage during transport. The cages are labeled following strict guidelines and kept clean and cool, ready for validation and distribution.
It is important to note that at present, there is only a limited directed fishery for horse clams near Comox, British Columbia. Other than that, there is no directed fishery for horse clams and harvesters only take them when they are harvested incidentally with geoducks. Horse clam landings average between <1% to 3 % of the total geoduck landings.
Geoducks are harvested by divers who work from sturdy, long-range vessels in remote areas along the coast of British Columbia's mainland, Vancouver Island and also Haida Gwaii.
When the vessel lands, the geoducks are validated by an independent dockside monitor who weighs the cages and records the harvest details in a validation logbook. Refrigerated trucks then take the fresh, live clams to federally approved and registered shellfish buyers in Vancouver. Here they are off-loaded, validated again to ensure exact weight, graded and carefully packaged in shipping containers to maintain top condition. The shipping containers are primarily styrofoam boxes with moist food grade paper dividers and cool packs to ensure product quality and freshness. The clams are then air freighted live to markets overseas, usually the same day.
Contrary to what most people believe, the geoducks are not held in water during transport. As intertidal animals, geoducks can survive for a number of days out of the water if kept cool and moist. When exposed or during transport, geoducks close their siphon to seal in moisture and wait for the tide to rise. Once delivered to retailers or restaurants, live geoduck can then again be stored in clean salt water, with a similar temperature and salinity level as British Columbia’s Pacific Ocean.
The Canadian industry has developed a dependable distribution system to rush live product to market within one to two days. For example, a geoduck harvested Monday in the Straight of Georgia is packaged in Vancouver Monday night, then loaded onto a flight to Hong Kong Tuesday morning.
The UHA has established many guidelines that association members follow closely to ensure all buyers of Geoduck from Canada that they are purchasing a product that is safe to eat and meets the UHA’s high standards of quality. Accordingly, the UHA has developed stringent guidelines and procedures to make certain that “Market Approved” product has been sent to the marketplace.
While these procedures start even before geoducks are harvested with extensive water quality and bio-toxin testing, they are especially evident right after harvest and throughout the distribution channel. In fact, the defined process described below ensures that any Geoduck from Canada product can be traced back from the consumer right to the exact time and location of harvest.
Immediately after harvest and until delivery to a federally registered shellfish plant, all commercial geoducks and horse clams must be packed in “cages” and with cage dividers in between layers of product in each cage. The cages and dividing liners are fabricated from Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved material and provided to each harvester by the UHA.
Each cage must feature a waterproof tag with the following information until it is delivered to a registered processing plant:
At the point of landing, independent observers funded by the UHA validate the weight of all geoducks and the information is recorded in the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) approved Geoduck and Horse Clam Validation and Harvest Logbooks. A copy of the appropriate entry in the logbook must accompany the product to the federally registered processing plant. Upon arrival at the plant, the product is further validated by an independent inspector.
All commercially harvested geoducks must go through a federally registered processing plant prior to distribution of sale. All shellfish products leaving a registered processing plant must be labeled with the following information:
If the product is sold to a distributor, the distributor may replace the processor’s label with his own, but the label must contain the same information as the processor’s label. In this situation, however, instead of the processor name, the label would say “distributed by” and have the distributor’s name. Both processors and distributors must keep records of the product origin.
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