Scientists would study the effects of intensive geoduck farming while the state continues to lease tidelands to growers, under a bill gaining support in the Washington Legislature.
"It's a compromise, but unquestionably a positive step forward," said Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, sponsor of House Bill 2220.
In Pierce County, the proliferation of geoduck farms - about a dozen permit applications are pending - has prompted
waterfront-area property owners to organize in opposition. Foes call the plastic growing tubes unsightly and claim that growers leave litter in the Sound and that intensive shellfish farming harms native fish and wildlife.
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Growers, for their part, say clams improve water quality, but need protection from predators. The tubes and nets prevent other creatures from eating the clams before they are ready for harvest, growers say.
The Lantz bill would authorize the University of Washington's Sea Grant program to commission research and report back to the Legislature in increments, with the final report due by December 2013. In the meantime, the state Department of Natural Resources could lease up to 25 acres of geoduck tracts each year to commercial growers.
The House Select Committee on Puget Sound unanimously approved the measure Tuesday. It now goes to the House Appropriations Committee, which will consider whether to provide money for the research.
Geoducks are giant burrowing clams. A delicacy in Asia, they are shipped live and fetch high prices. Until recently, most geoducks taken from Puget Sound were wild. But several years ago, shellfish growers began raising them along the shorelines.
As drafted, Lantz's bill has the reluctant endorsement of both shellfish growers and critics, although neither side is satisfied, representatives said.
Laura Hendricks, a Gig Harbor-area resident who founded the Henderson Bay Shoreline Association to oppose geoduck aquaculture, praised Lantz's efforts. Even so, she and others believe the state should quit leasing tidelands to geoduck growers until the scientists weigh in.
Lantz introduced HB 2220 after growers rallied in opposition to her original bill, House Bill 1547, which would have halted public leases of geoduck tracts. The original bill also would have required growers to get county-issued shoreline permits, now mandatory only in Pierce County.
However, Lantz said both of those provisions raised insurmountable objections from growers, who now cautiously back HB 2220.
"Overall, we certainly support the idea of doing research and filling gaps where we don't have information," said Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association. Downey, who lives in Port Townsend, is a geoduck grower.
The growers were backing a different bill that sought to streamline regulations and create a state Department of Agriculture job to promote the industry. The committee did not vote on that measure, HB 1728.
The compromise measure, HB 2220, calls for peer-reviewed research, prioritized to focus on environmental effects, Lantz said. As an example, researchers would look into what clam harvesting does to bottom-dwelling organisms. Typically, workers extract clams using high-pressure hoses. Whats it mean when you liquify the beach? Lantz asked.
The bill also sets up an oversight committee to advise the state Department of Ecology on shellfish aquaculture regulations.
No money is provided in the bill for the research, which could cost $750,000. Even so, Lantz said she expects money to be made available if the Legislature approves the measure.