A state Department of Health spokesman said Monday that a shipment of geoducks from Puget Sound waters that apparently helped trigger a Chinese ban on imported U.S. West Coast shellfish had far lower levels of toxin than Chinese authorities say it did.
But while the situation gets sorted out, business is on hold for much of the substantial South Sound shellfish industry and its workers, which rely heavily on exports to Asia.
Chinese officials said they found high levels of toxin and arsenic in a shipment of geoducks from Northwest waters earlier this month, which prompted them to ban importing bivalve shellfish — geoducks, mussels, oysters and clams — from area 67, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration designation that stretches from mid-California to Alaska.
After getting more information from Chinese authorities and checking health certificates issued by NOAA, the geoducks in question have been traced to Ketchikan, Alaska, and Puget Sound waters near Poverty Bay, northeast of Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, marine biotoxin coordinator Jerry Borchert said.
Those geoducks came from a state Department of Natural Resources tract called Redondo, he said. State testing data from those geoducks found low toxicity levels, Borchert said.
A PSP toxin level of 80 micrograms per 100 grams of tissue or higher will shut down a geoduck harvest because of the illness the toxins can cause. But the Redondo tract geoducks had a PSP toxin level ranging from fewer than 38 micrograms to a high of 62 micrograms, Borchert said.
Chinese authorities said the PSP levels of the geoducks they tested were 600 to 1,500 micrograms per 100 grams of tissue.
“We’re not seeing any levels of PSP for geoduck near that level,” Borchert said.
Borchert acknowledged Monday that the state has more questions than answers about China’s ban and is seeking more information, particularly on the methodology that produced the high readings. The state does not do routine testing for arsenic in geoducks, he said.
China also didn’t specify whether the high levels of PSP and arsenic came from the Washington or Alaska geoducks, Borchert added.
The state has submitted its findings to the FDA and NOAA, he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear Monday how many workers in South Sound might be affected by the ban, although Olympia-based Pacific Shellfish Growers Association executive director Margaret Barrette said her organization represents 110 shellfish growing organizations from Alaska to California.
“The closures come at a terrible time,” she said about the ban, adding that many countries in Asia want American shellfish to serve during upcoming New Year’s celebrations.
Meanwhile, the geoduck business at South Sound shellfish growers such as Seattle Shellfish and Taylor Shellfish, both in Shelton, is largely on hold.
Jim Gibbons, chief executive and founder of Seattle Shellfish, said his company ships exclusively to China, so he has shifted his 70 employees to other duties, such as geoduck farm maintenance, since they can’t currently harvest the giant clam.
He said in the short term, his business won’t be affected. But if the ban continues, he’ll have to consider cutting costs.
Gibbons estimated the worldwide market for geoduck at 10 million to 12 million pounds annually, with about half of that harvested in Puget Sound.
Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey said Taylor previously exported 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of geoducks per month to China, as well as 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of oysters.
The business isn’t entirely dependent on China and has developed domestic markets as well, he said. The challenge is that if exporting growers shift to selling to the domestic market, a flood of geoduck could cause prices to fall.
Geoduck sales represent about 15 percent to 20 percent of gross sales at Taylor, Dewey said.
“We really hope it’s a short-term ban,” he said.