Four Weeks In, Locals Feel The Pain Of China’s Shellfish Import Ban

Dec 24, 2013

China and Hong Kong have closed their doors to all shellfish imports from an area that stretches from northern California to Alaska. The move is costing the shellfish industry in Washington State hundreds of thousands of dollars. Ashley Ahearn reports.

The Chinese government instituted the ban in early December after finding two bad clams. One from Alaska had high levels of the biotoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. The other came from Puget Sound and tested high for inorganic arsenic. Washington does not test for arsenic in shellfish. 90 percent of the geoduck harvested in Washington are sold to China and Hong Kong. And the ban is having real impacts here.

Lydia Sigo: “We dive right out here in this area. That’s where we get the majority of our pounds is off this tract right here.”

Lydia Sigo stands on a dock on the Suquamish Tribe’s reservation near Seattle. It’s quiet on the water. No boats anywhere to be seen. The tribe is losing $20,000 dollars each day that the ban is in place.

“That’s been really frustrating because there’s about 25 divers in our tribe, that’s 25 families that really need to buy their kids Christmas presents or pay their mortgage, pay their rent. For me, I can’t keep going on like this for very long.”

To make matters worse, Sigo says, 40 percent of the money the tribal divers get from selling their geoduck goes to support the tribal elders.

"So this is affecting the entire tribe and other state divers, geoduck farms, people all over the state. It’s a huge industry and we spend that money in our local economies."

The shellfish industry in Washington is worth 270 million dollars annually, and China is the biggest market for exports. This is the broadest shellfish ban the Chinese have ever put in place. But it’s not the first time China has banned a major import from the U.S. Beef imports from the U.S. have been banned for the past ten years. More recently, China rejected about half a million tons of U.S. corn because it contained a genetically modified strain.

Chinese officials have been slow to reveal details of their shellfish testing methods. That’s prompted some to raise concerns about political motivations behind the shellfish ban. Tabitha Mallory is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program.

“It is possible that it could be retaliation for something. That has happened in the past.”

In 2010 China banned salmon imports from Norway after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the political activist Liu Xiaobo. Mallory says it’s unclear what kind of larger political statement China could be making with the shellfish ban.

“I think it’s good to consider all the possible motivations for this, but I don’t think that we should write off the possibility that it is a legitimate accusation.”

The contaminated clam was harvested near the former site of a copper smelter in Tacoma, which had leached arsenic into the surrounding area. Washington state officials have now closed the area and are testing shellfish for arsenic. Results are expected in the coming days. The state is losing 5-$600,000 dollars each week the ban persists, according to state officials.

I’m Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.

Copyright Northwest News Network 2013