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China has banned all shellfish from the U.S. Northwest, from Northern California to Alaska, after Chinese officials found two shipments of geoduck clams were contaminated.
Chinese officials say the clams contained high levels of arsenic and a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. Geoducks (pronounced “gooey ducks”) are the world’s largest burrowing clams. They can live for more than 100 years and reach weights of more than 10 pounds.
Geoduck are considered a delicacy in China where they sell for about $100 per pound. They are also very popular for the Chinese New Year Celebration, which will fall on Jan. 31.
The U.S. shellfish industry exports more than $500 million in seafood each year, a third of which goes to China.
“So when that door gets shut, that’s a big customer to be lost and geoduck are a big part of that market,” Ashley Ahearn of KUOW’s Earthfix tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. Ahearn was part of the reporting team that broke the story.
China reported that the shipments came from Ketchikan Alaska and Renton Washington in early October, but the Washington Department of Health has reported no signs of unsafe toxins in any of the tests they ran in that time period.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stopped issuing certifications for the region in late November. State officials are for NOAA to come to an agreement about how to move forward and reopen the shellfish trade.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Shell fishermen in the Pacific Northwest are still trying to figure out what to do after news broke that China has put a ban on imports of shellfish from Northern California, all the way through Alaska. The Chinese say there was a tainted shipment of geoducks back in November and that high levels of a biotoxin that can be fatal were found.
In a moment we're going to speak with a spokesperson from one of the largest shellfish companies affected by the ban. But first to KUOW in Seattle which broke the story. It's part of the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, and KUOW reporter Ashley Ahearn is with us. Ashley, welcome.
ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: Hey, Jeremy.
HOBSON: So tell us about this ban and what, exactly, is being banned from export to China.
AHEARN: So at the end of November, the Chinese said that they tested a geoduck clam that had come in from the Northwest, and that it had high levels of arsenic and the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning - or the red tide toxin, as most places know it. And so they shut down all imports of shellfish from Northern California, all the way up to Alaska. That's a big hit to the industry.
HOBSON: Absolutely. And when you say geoduck, many people may not have heard of a geoduck. It's not spelled like it sounds. It's actually spelled geoduck, but it's pronounced gooey duck. We've got a picture up on our website. Ashley, tell us what it looks like.
AHEARN: I wish you hadn't asked me that. These are the most inappropriately shaped clams I've ever seen in my life.
They've been described as an elephant trunk, and they are kind of in these open-booked - open-closed book shells, the size is about the palm of your hand, but they can be up to 10 pounds in weight. And they can live up to 150 years. They're sort of the old-growth shellfish of Puget Sound.
HOBSON: Wow. And they're very popular in China?
AHEARN: Yes. They're believed to promote virility, fertility, maybe an aphrodisiac. And they sell for a lot of money.
HOBSON: And mostly they're coming from your part of the country, the Pacific Northwest.
AHEARN: That is correct. It's a major export for us.
HOBSON: Well, tell us about that. What's the economic impact with a ban like this?
AHEARN: So to give you some sense of scale here, the shellfish industry in the Northwest, in Washington State, is worth $270 million. It's a lot of money. But the U.S. overall exports more than $500 million worth of shellfish and a third of it goes to China. So when that door gets shut, that's a big customer to be lost. And geoduck are big a part of that market.
HOBSON: Do people eat them here in the United States?
AHEARN: Not very much where I live, but some people do.
HOBSON: I'm sure there are some. Well, what are local officials doing? Is there anything that they can do to try to get this ban overturned?
AHEARN: Well, that's the interesting thing. In talking to the State Department of Health, they were baffled by these findings from the Chinese. They said, you know, and I've been to the lab where they test shellfish on a weekly basis from all around Puget Sound. And they just said, we're not seeing any of these high levels. We don't know where the Chinese are getting this. So it's been pretty confusing. And I think that Washington - because the shellfish industry is so key, the state is extra careful about testing anything before it goes to market.
HOBSON: Well, how long is the ban expected to last?
AHEARN: Indefinitely. We don't know. The last time something happened like this, it was on a much smaller scale in Washington State. Back in 2005, 2006, the Chinese banned imports and that went on for eight or nine months. But I mean, the Chinese have banned imports of American beef, and that's been on for more than 10 years now. So...
HOBSON: Well, Ashley Ahearn, a reporter with EarthFix at KUOW, thanks so much for coming in.
AHEARN: Thanks for having me.
HOBSON: And now, let's turn to Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms. It's one of the largest companies affected by the ban. He's with us from his office in Shelton, Washington. Bill, welcome.
BILL DEWEY: Thanks, Jeremy. Hi.
HOBSON: Hi. Well, first, tell us about Taylor Shellfish Farms and what exactly you do and especially about your geoduck production.
DEWEY: The Taylor family has been farming shellfish here in Washington State since around 1890. The last couple of decades we've really grown the company and farmed a number of species. So we have hatcheries and nurseries that produce babies for our farms. And we grow clams, oysters, mussels and our famous Northwest geoduck clam.
HOBSON: Well, how is this shellfish ban going to affect your business?
DEWEY: It's a pretty big deal for us and a number of other people, particularly in the geoduck business. And we export a lot of our product to Asian countries. China in particular is a big consumer of Washington shellfish. For us, we sell about 50 percent of our farmed geoduck production there in China, so this ban is affecting us. And they started December 5. We haven't been shipping since then. So...
HOBSON: Are you going to have to lay people off?
DEWEY: Well, we - if it continues very long, we will. You know, right now we're doing our best to keep people working (unintelligible) orders, you know, with our domestic market and maintenance and things to keep people busy. It's not - we don't want to lay people off during the holidays here if we can avoid it. So...
HOBSON: Do you have any sense of how long this ban is going to last?
DEWEY: We don't. We don't have any idea. You know, it's taking some time just to get communication going between the United States government and the Chinese government to get, you know, more information, more details on what's happened and to try to get them the answers they need. So we're hopeful it will be quick.
HOBSON: But you leave it, basically, up to the governments to sort it out. It's not something that Taylor Shellfish Farms can get involved with directly with the Chinese.
DEWEY: No. I mean, it wasn't even Taylor product that was implicated.
DEWEY: These are some wild harvest gooey ducks that were implicated. And all we're trying to do is, you know, work with our congressional delegation and with the federal agencies to ensure that communication is happening that needs to happen so we get the answers, you know, both governments need as soon as possible to get this turned around.
HOBSON: Do you make any changes to your stock for next year? Are you going to not farm as many gooey ducks as you do now because you're not sure what's happening with the ban?
DEWEY: Well, obviously, if it continues, it's going to affect our long-term planning. You know, it also affects us. It takes a long time for us to produce the baby gooey ducks to plant on our farms. So our nurseries are all full of baby gooey ducks that were intended to go onto farms that we're supposed to be harvesting right now. So if we don't get those farms harvested, then we don't have any place to plant the babies next spring. And, you know, it starts to really impact things if things don't get moving soon.
HOBSON: What might this do in this country to prices of shellfish for the people that don't eat gooey ducks, but maybe they do eat other kinds of shellfish?
DEWEY: Well, it probably won't affect other types of shellfish pricing in the country very much. You know, we ship oysters into China as well. The volume is not huge. And really, the big impact here is gooey duck and for people that enjoy gooey duck in the United States. If all of this gooey duck that was going to China now starts to force its way into the domestic market, they should see a drop in price here, which is good for them, not so good for us.
HOBSON: Do you like gooey duck yourself?
DEWEY: Oh, you bet. It's wonderful.
HOBSON: Really? What does it taste like?
DEWEY: Absolutely. It's got its own unique flavor. A lot of people will compare it to abalone. You know, it's a very fresh, crisp texture. If you eat it raw, you know, which is often the case here where people take the siphon and slice it and then eat it as sashimi. It's called mirugai in the sushi bars. It's a wonderful flavor.
HOBSON: Well, Bill Dewey, spokesman for Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton, Washington, thanks so much for joining us.
DEWEY: Yeah. Thanks, Jeremy.
HOBSON: Robin, have you ever had any gooey duck?
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
I have not. I'm looking at a picture - that is just about the ugliest thing I have ever seen.
HOBSON: I don't think I've ever had it. Although, maybe some omakase. At some sushi restaurant, they served it.
HOBSON: I have no idea.
YOUNG: And, of course, you know, that's the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in Long Island where we clam for quahogs, which are not too pretty, but...
HOBSON: I grew up in central Illinois where we clam for corn.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.