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A container ship departed from Seattle on Thursday with the first-ever shipments of Northwest fresh pears to China, ending a nearly 20-year effort to gain market access to the world’s most populous nation.

The shipment of as many as 3,600 boxes is the first of what the pear industry hopes will be total sales of 50,000 boxes during this marketing year. A box of pears weighs about 44 pounds on average.

Kevin Moffitt, president and chief executive officer for the Pear Bureau Northwest in Portland, the industry’s marketing arm, said he is hopeful the market could grow to as many as 300,000 boxes in the next few years.

Shipments at that level would place China among the top five export markets.

The region exports about 7 million boxes of pears annually. Mexico, Canada and Russia are the top customers.

“We are very excited about the number we could ship there,” Moffitt said Tuesday.

He said the estimate is based on the sheer size of the Chinese population and its growing middle class that has the income to purchase imported fruit.

The trade program became possible late last summer when the United States and China reached agreement on protocols for pear shipments. The agreement also allows the importation to the United States of a third Chinese pear variety called the sand pear.

Final terms of the agreement were published last week, clearing the way for shippers to seek permits.

Mark Powers, a vice president of the Northwest Horticultural Council of Yakima, described the shipments as a major step for the pear industry, which has been seeking access to China since 1994.

“We are very hopeful, as is the pear bureau, this will be a good export market for USA pears. It’s always good to finish up a long-term project,” Powers said. “Now it’s on to the next stage which is maintaining the market.”

The primary issue has been resolving Chinese concern about introduction of the bacterial disease known as fire blight.

Most of the shipments will involve winter pears like d’Anjou. Moffitt said he expects some Bartlett and Starkrimson varieties also will be marketed in China.

Washington state is the nation’s largest producer of pears with 48 percent of domestic production, according to the state Department of Agriculture.