Tofino (Canada) (AFP) - From a basket hoisted on the back of his trawler, fisherman Freddy Gutmann proudly picks up a giant geoduck clam fresh from the frigid waters off the northwestern Canadian coast.
"This one is a great specimen," Gutmann says as sea water gushes from the massive mollusk that measures an impressive 20 centimeters (eight inches).
Gutmann has good reason to be in high spirits since within 24 hours, the super-sized shellfish -- shunned by Western chefs -- will be served at top restaurants in Hong Kong, Beijing or Tokyo for a steep price.
Without missing a beat, the 35-year veteran of the Pacific waters off northwest Canada swiftly fills three orange cases with his sorted and cleaned catch so they can be rushed to the airport in Vancouver -- and on to Asia.
While a kilo (2.2 pounds) of geoducks goes for some Can$30 (US$27) these days -- six times less than what top Asian eateries will ask their patrons to fork over -- that wasn't always the case, recalled Gutmann.
"Fifteen years ago, its price was around 30 cents per pound, maximum," he said.
What's more, licenses to harvest such clams were once available for a pittance.
"License owners got them for a couple bucks. Sometimes they were given by the government," said the native of Tofino, a small seaside town in the province of British Columbia popular with surfers and aging hippies.
Today, however, "they're worth $4 to $5 million," he added.
In the port of Tofino, flanked by rugged, snow-capped mountains, mariners talk of astronomically high fees of Can$50 million per permit and annual salaries of Can$200,000 -- all difficult to believe and verify.
But just 55 fishing permits have been issued by Canadian authorities who are not planning to increase that quota -- even though environmentalists say the geoduck population is overabundant.
- 'Really hard to catch' -
The conspicuous clams can be found all the way from Mexico's Baja California peninsula to Alaska. But they are particularly present off the shores of the US state of Washington and in neighboring British Columbia.
However, harvesting the shellfish is no easy task and, except for slightly more modern equipment, the task hasn't changed much since Gutmann started his career more than three decades ago.
It takes two divers weighed down by 30-kilogram belts and taking turns over 12 hours to plunge 15 to 20 meters (yards) into the dark waters to wrest the geoducks from their perch on the sandy Pacific floor.
Dressed in thick wetsuits and attached to a boat by a 300-meter-long air hose, the divers scour the sea floor for tiny holes that suggest the presence of a clam, often buried under a meter of sand.
"You've got your ears against the sand -- you hold it, but it's fighting to leave," said David Thomas, who has spent 27 of his 48 years searching for geoducks.
"It's really hard to catch, especially for young divers."
Boasting the build of an American football player, Thomas -- who works with Gutmann -- swears this season will be his last.
Sometimes, the underwater current is so strong that it plasters you to the sea floor, said the family man, adding that he's even come face-to-face with a sea lion.
Interest in geoducks is so strong that once the Tofino fishing season ends, the modest local fleet of 30 trawlers heads further north to the Alaska border.
"There's nothing out there -- you go from one bay to another and you don't see anybody," Thomas said as he pointed to a map on board the trawler known as the Hideaway II. "It's all white here."
But oddly, despite having spent so many years in pursuit of geoducks, neither Thomas, Gutmann or the boat's third crew member have become culinary fans of the clams.
"They're for Asians," Thomas said.