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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
Record-breaking levels of toxins among southern Southeast Alaska’s geoduck clams have yielded an extremely slow harvest for the 2018-2019 commercial geoduck season so far.
Since the season started on Oct. 3, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has allowed only three, two-day openings to occur. The month of November saw no openings at all. At a total harvest of about 146,400 pounds — roughly 20 percent of the season’s total limit — geoduck landings are lagging well behind their usual rate.
Geoducks are large burrowing clams typically harvested by commercial divers and shipped live to Asia, where they’re eaten either cooked or raw. Nearly all of Alaska’s commercial geoduck harvest takes place in southern Southeast Alaska.
Geoducks are susceptible to accumulating toxins from feeding on particular types of algae. At sufficient levels, the toxin can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association therefore tests geoduck beds for the toxin each weekend. Those areas that stay under state-mandated PSP limits are opened for harvest by Fish and Game on the following Wednesday and Thursday.
According to SARDFA Executive Director Phil Doherty, current PSP levels are the highest the association has ever seen in the region.
“This is very, very, very unusual,” Doherty said on Wednesday. “Right now, we’ve tested approximately 40 different times throughout Southeast. And approximately 88 percent of the times we have tested, those beds have failed. … These unusually high levels of PSP have really put the lid on this fishery.”
The slow start has been a major obstacle for geoduck divers, Doherty said.
“If the beds don’t pass PSP testing, then we don’t fish,” he said. ‘“So you’ve got 50 to 60 divers who are sitting out there hoping to get a weekly fishery in the geoduck fishery. … It’s difficult to do something else when you’re anticipating that any given week, any given day, we could be fishing.”
The presence of PSP has been also costly for SARDFA itself, Doherty added. Sampling is expensive — about $5,000 a weekend. When areas don’t pass, it means that even more sampling will be necessary in the future.
Recent events could pose further setbacks for the fishery. Justin Breese, a Fish and Game assistant area management biologist, speculated on Friday that the Anchorage earthquake could prevent the fishery from opening next week, because the laboratory that tests the samples is located in Anchorage.
This year also saw a significant shift in the way the fishery is regulated. Typically, Fish and Game limits geoduck harvests in a given location by time. This year, the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved a new system that instead limits harvests primarily by weight. Permit holders are limited to harvesting 1,000 pounds of geoducks per opening. Because of this season’s limited harvest opportunities, it’s too early to determine what kind of effect the new system has had, Doherty said.
In spite of the season’s slow start, there is still hope for this season’s geoduck harvests. According to Breese, the coming of colder temperatures could cause PSP levels to decline.
“They’re hoping that as the wintertime progresses here, the PSP levels will continue to go down,” Breese said. “Typically in the winter time, there’s less light and the temperature’s a little colder. And that tends to keep algal blooms down, which reduces the amount of PSP that clams are taking up. And so that leads to lower PSP levels — typically.”
For now, SARDFA plans to keep sampling.
“We’ll keep trying,” Doherty said. “... If you don’t sample then you don’t get an opening. So you’ve got to go out there and keep trying.”