China has lifted a five-month ban on live shellfish from U.S. West Coast waters, officials said Friday.
The Chinese government announced the ban’s end in a letter Friday, officials said. The ban had particularly affected the Washington and Alaska shellfish industry.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled to finally get a favorable response from China,” said Bill Dewey, a spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Mason County. “It’s gone on longer than we had hoped.”
China imposed the ban in December on the import of clams, oysters, mussels and scallops harvested from Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Northern California. China detected high levels of inorganic arsenic in geoducks from Puget Sound. It also found paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in geoducks harvested in Alaska. High levels of inorganic arsenic and PSP have not been found in other areas of the larger region.
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PSP is a biotoxin produced by algae that shellfish eat; in humans in high levels, it can lead to severe illness and even death.
The ban was a particularly nettlesome problem in Washington because China typically accounts for about 90 percent of geoduck exports from the state. And fisheries in the state harvest and farm 5.5 million to 7 million pounds of geoduck annually, according to Taylor Shellfish, one of the state’s largest geoduck providers.
U.S. officials had traveled to China in March to discuss lifting the ban. They highlighted new methods for sampling, surveillance and monitoring of inorganic arsenic.
“China is a key export market for our region’s shellfish, and this news means greater economic stability for the workers and families in our region,” U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, said in a statement. “I look forward to working closely with federal, state, local and tribal stakeholders to ensure that the new testing and monitoring requirements can be swiftly implemented and we can get back to shipping world-famous Washington shellfish to a major market.”
The Chinese letter also said the country will send a team of food-safety officials to the United States to monitor shellfish testing.
Geoducks are large, burrowing clams that are highly prized and can fetch up to $50 a pound in Asian markets. The U.S. exported $68 million worth of geoduck clams in 2012, mostly from Washington state.
Taylor Shellfish had been shipping between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds of geoduck and up to 10,000 dozen oysters monthly to China when the ban took effect, Dewey said.
“All of that stopped immediately. We kept people working as best we could through the holidays, but as the ban continued into January, we ended up laying people off,” he said. “At the height of it, we had close to 30 people laid off. Since then, we’ve gradually been able to get people back to work.”
Despite the ban, Washington shellfish growers continued shipping their product to Asia, with the two main destinations being Hong Kong and Vietnam.
“We’ve worked to further diversify our markets,” Dewey said. “But we’re definitely excited to have China back on line. They’re a very important trading partner for us.”
Seattle Times business reporter Amy Martinez contributed to this story. Material from The Seattle Times archive is included in this report.