Geoduck fishermen switch to urchins off Washington's coast

China banned West Coast shellfish after finding traces of toxins.

  • Deckhand Jason Paul sorts red sea urchins aboard Joe Williams' fishing boat Frayed Knot in the San Juan Islands near Anacortes, Washington.

    Mike Kane
  • The Frayed Knot waits in line for its chance to offload and sell red sea urchins at a marina in Anacortes, Washington. Joe Williams, the boat's owner, turned to red sea urchins after the Chinese banned importing more-profitable geoducks from Northwest fisheries.

    Mike Kane
  • Joe Williams, a fisherman and Swinomish Indian, heads out to sea for a dive to harvest red sea urchins.

    Mike Kane
  • Williams, right, prepares for a dive to harvest red sea urchins. Sea urchins sell for about $1 a pound, compared to $16 a pound for geoducks.

    Mike Kane
  • Williams wears a full-body dry suit and a pair of baseball catcher's shin guards to protect himself and the suit when diving for red sea urchins off the coast of Washington.

    Mike Kane
  • Williams sets off on a dive.

    Mike Kane
  • Deckhand Jason Paul sorts red sea urchins aboard the Frayed Knot.

    Mike Kane
  • Part of the Frayed Knot's sea urchin catch.

    Mike Kane
  • Deckhand Jason Paul takes a cigarette from a sea urchin buyer at a marina in Anacortes, Washington.

    MIke Kane
  • Dusk settles over the San Juan Islands off the Washington coast. U.S. officials are traveling to China in March, hoping to end the geoduck ban. Williams, however, couldn't wait: In February, he returned to work at an oil refinery.

    Mike Kane
 

Zipped into a full-body dry suit, Joe Williams hardly feels the frigid winter waters around Washington's San Juan Islands. Diving for red sea urchins nestled among sharp crags is exciting, he says, like underwater rock climbing. But the Swinomish Indian would rather harvest geoducks, pronounced "gooey-ducks," giant clams with a bizarre trunk-like protrusion that weigh up to 15 pounds. A delicacy in China, they can fetch $16 a pound, compared to about $1 for a pound of urchins.

Williams switched to urchins because China stopped importing West Coast shellfish in December, after its inspectors found traces of arsenic and paralytic shellfish poisoning in Washington and Alaska geoducks. China imported $68 million in U.S. geoducks alone in 2012 – including 90 percent of Washington's harvest. Some hard-hit divers are tackling less profitable alternatives – sea urchins, sea cucumbers and crab. Other geoduck divers and farmers are selling to Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and U.S. Chinatowns. At least one Puget Sound tribal company laid off most of its plant workers and divers.

U.S. officials did not detect toxic levels of contamination and are traveling to China in March, hoping to end the ban. Williams, however, couldn't wait: In February, he returned to work at an oil refinery.

Mike Kane is a photographer based in Seattle. Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News.