The $50 million industry surrounding Canada’s “presentationally challenged” Pacific coast clam has been smacked hard by the coronavirus.
Geoducks, which gained a jolt of worldwide notoriety due to Prince William’s polite description during a 2016 visit to B.C., faced a swift blow when China shut its borders at the end of January.
“Business is down by 40 per cent ” said James Austin, president of Underwater Harvesters Association, adding that China’s economic market, which plummeted after the pandemic, has a huge direct effect on the Canadian geoduck industry.
While the the large, ridiculous-looking mollusk — the largest burrowing clam in the world — does not generate a huge demand near home waters, it is a much-sought-after delicacy in Asia. More than 90 per cent of geoducks harvested in B.C. are exported and sold to Chinese markets where the demand is huge, apparently due to its aphrodisiac properties.
Sold for anywhere between $20-$30 per pound prior to the pandemic, the price has now dropped by 30 per cent said Austin.
The high price is due to highly specialized harvesting procedures and the agile nature of its distribution. Fresh, live geoducks are supplied to Asian markets within 24 hours after being harvested by experienced divers and boxed at federally approved facilities in Vancouver.
Timely delivery plays a crucial role in the demand, said Austin. When airlines cut back international operations in February, licensed geoduck harvesters had to leave 450,000 lbs (204,000 kg) of their annual allowable catch underwater.
“There was no point in harvesting them as there was no market at that time,” said Austin, who added that the quota that was supposed to be harvested by Feb. 28, had to be extended and was completed only by May 15.
Since direct flights to China were suspended, alternative air routes had to be identified to deliver geoducks into mainland China via Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Harvested from depths of 20 to 30 metres, geoducks are found in remote waters around Vancouver Island including those around Tofino, Barkley Sound, Port McNeil and Port Hardy, as well as off Haida Gwaii and mainland B.C.
Harvesting is done year-round, to extract an annual quota of three million pounds. Before COVID-19, an average of between 10,000 lbs to 30,000 lbs of geoduck was exported every day from B.C. The demand spikes further during festivals, especially Chinese new year, Austin said.