KETCHIKAN (AP) -- It might be the Year of the Goat, but it's geoduck clams from Southeast Alaska that will be on the menu for many when the Chinese New Year begins Saturday.
Tons of live geoduck clams have been shipped out of Ketchikan International Airport in the past week, many en route to China and Chinese communities in the Lower 48.
The clams are being harvested in Southeast's commercial geoduck dive fishery that began Jan. 21. As of Wednesday, harvest divers had landed more than 100,000 pounds of geoducks, including about 62,000 pounds from Foggy Bay south of Ketchikan and approximately 28,700 pounds from Sea Otter Sound off the west coast of Prince of Wales Island.
Most clams are being shipped live rather than processed.
In past years, the lack of an effective testing program for paralytic shellfish poisoning meant most clams harvested in Southeast had to be processed before reaching the market, at far less value.
In 2002, harvest divers received about 75 cents per pound for geoducks that had to be processed, said Steve LaCroix, president of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.
This year, the price is about $2.50 per pound for clams shipped live.
PSP is caused by a poison produced by tiny creatures called dinoflagellates that are ingested by marine animals such as oysters, clams and scallops, according to the Alaska Sea Grant program. The toxin is stored in the animals bodies -- for as long as two years in the case of butter clams -- and can cause nausea, slurred speech and even death to humans who ingest an affected animal.
PSP levels in marine animals fluctuate. An area that has low levels one month might be hot the next.
Last year, the dive association and state regulators developed a monitoring program and several federal and state organizations are involved with funding and implementing the program.
When testing began in late 2002, it appeared that most of the potential fishing areas might be approved for live clams, said Julie Decker, dive association executive director.
''We started the testing program in November and had done really well until January, when a couple of areas came back hot,'' Decker told the Ketchikan Daily News.
Seven sub-districts that passed the required series of tests opened Jan. 21. Three others, including the West Gravina area near Ketchikan and the San Christoval and East San Fernando areas off the southwest coast of Prince of Wales Island, remained closed because of elevated PSP levels.
Another bump in the monitoring program has been logistics. The testing laboratory is in Palmer, northeast of Anchorage. Decker said transporting clams for testing can take precious time for a time-sensitive product.
''We're working the kinks out of the side of the system of sending the samples to the lab,'' Decker said. ''It's definitely more complicated than we're used to.''
Sidebar geoducks are burrowing clams found in intertidal and subtidal areas. The clams bury themselves in mud or sand and use their long, thick necks, or siphons, to reach water for food and oxygen.
The clam's neck produces a tender meat prized especially in China, where geoducks are known as the elephant trunk clam.
Geoduck clams can grow as big as 20 pounds, although 2 pounds is a more common size. The market prefers clams in the 1.5-pound to 3-pound range, said Leigh Gerber of NorQuest Seafoods.
According to Agriculture and Argi-Food Canada, growth-ring analysis indicates that geoducks can live longer than 100 years. The oldest known example was 146 years old when harvested.
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