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Geoducks: Puget Sound Gold

Thanks to Chinese demand and arcane regulations, American Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest dominate a surprisingly lucrative trade in giant clams called geoducks

The tribal police are tied up alongside the Ichiban, a broad, aluminum dive boat that bucks against its anchor line 300 yards offshore. Only one of the Ichiban’s two dive lines is running at the moment, trailing off the stern into the granite waters of South Puget Sound. The Ichiban’s captain, Craig Parker, stares intently as the tribal officer finishes his paperwork—capping off an inspection of the Ichiban’s safety procedures and a proficiency test to certify that all members of Parker’s crew are qualified to do their strange work 40 to 50 feet below the surface.

“We did good,” Captain Parker barks over the growl of the compressors after the inspectors have gone. “Everybody passed inspection, and Connie did great.” Connie Whitener, who with her bookish demeanor seems more like a schoolteacher than a certified commercial diver, offers a shy smile, then tugs the collar of her parka against the steady rain. Like everyone on board, Whitener is a member of the 1,000-strong Squaxin Island tribe. It’s been a while since she’s worked a shift as a ducker, and she’d be prohibited from doing so if the inspectors failed her. Duckers dive exclusively for the giant, burrowing clams known as geoducks. According to Indian tribal law, you’re not a ducker if you can’t fill a 50-pound crate of clams in less than 15 minutes. Having filled her crate fast enough, Whitener will now be entitled to an equal share (split seven ways) of the day’s $25,000 harvest.