Beijing bans some US shellfish imports, says toxins found

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 December, 2013, 4:44am


Beijing has suspended imports of shellfish from the US west coast, cutting off one of the biggest export markets for companies in the northwestern United States and prompting fears of a months-long shutdown.

Beijing imposed the ban after discovering that recent shipments of geoduck clams from northwestern US waters had high levels of arsenic and a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, public radio reported.

The Chinese government says the ban that started last week will continue indefinitely. Clams, oysters and all other two-shelled bivalves harvested off Washington, Oregon, Alaska and northern California are affected.

"They've never done anything like that, where they would not allow shellfish from this entire area based on potentially two areas or maybe just one area. We don't really know yet," said Jerry Borchert of the Washington Department of Health.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will negotiate with the Chinese government on an agreement to reopen the shellfish trade. NOAA stopped issuing export certificates last Friday.

The United States exported US$68 million worth of geoduck clams last year, mostly from Washington state's Puget Sound. Nearly 90 per cent of those geoduck exports went to China.

"It's had an incredible impact," said George Hill, the geoduck harvest co-ordinator for Puget Sound's Suquamish tribe. "A couple thousand divers out of work right now."

Geoduck sell for US$100-$150 per pound in mainland China. Although the clams are harvested year-around, demand peaks during the holiday season leading up to the Lunar New Year, which falls on January 31 in 2014.

Officials say the closure could last for months.