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Northwest Environmental News

4 Weeks In, Locals Feel Pain Of China’s Shellfish Ban

SEATTLE -- Ninety percent of the geoduck harvested in Washington are sold to China and Hong Kong. It's an indicator of how much the Northwest shellfish industry relies on exports to China.

The crushing economic impacts of China's move are hitting locals in Puget Sound hard for the holidays.

At the Suquamish Tribe's reservation on Puget Sound, Suquamish geoduck diver Lydia Sigo stands on a dock that would usually be crowded with boats bringing in their catches of geoduck. The clams can fetch up to $150 per pound in China. But today it's quiet. There are no boats on the water -- none of the 25 Suquamish tribal divers are working right now.

"That’s 25 families that really need to buy their kids Christmas presents or pay their mortgage, pay their rent," Sigo says. "For me, I can’t keep going on like this for very long.”

The tribe is losing $20,000 each day that the ban is in place, but the impacts of the ban are being felt well beyond the reservation.

"My brothers are from Port Gamble and they’re out of work," says John Jones, another Suquamish diver. "They shut down diving everywhere, not just for us but for the state. It impacts a whole lot of people, not just this community but all communities throughout Puget Sound, Alaska, Oregon."

The shellfish industry in Washington is worth $270 million annually, and China is the biggest market for exports.

This is the broadest shellfish ban China has ever put in place, but it’s not the first time China has banned a major import from the U.S. Beef imports from the U.S. have been banned for the past ten years. More recently, China rejected about half a million tons of U.S. corn because it contained a genetically modified strain.

Chinese officials have been slow to reveal details of their shellfish testing methods. That’s prompted some to raise concerns about political motivations behind the shellfish ban.

“It is possible that it could be retaliation for something," says Tabitha Mallory, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program. "That has happened in the past.”

In 2010 China banned salmon imports from Norway, just after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the political activist Liu Xiaobo.

Mallory says it’s unclear what kind of larger political statement China could be making with the shellfish ban.

“I think it’s good to consider all the possible motivations for this," Mallory says. "But I don’t think that we should write off the possibility that it is a legitimate accusation.”

The contaminated clam was harvested near the former site of a copper smelter in Tacoma, which had leached arsenic into the surrounding area. Washington state officials have now closed the area and are testing shellfish for arsenic. Results are expected in the coming days.

Washington is losing $500,000-$600,000 each week the ban persists, according to state officials.

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Lydia Sigo has been diving for geoduck for more than 10 years. The clams can live for up to 150 years and fetch up to $150/pound in China.
Laura James /
Lydia Sigo has been diving for geoduck for more than 10 years. The clams can live for up to 150 years and fetch up to $150/pound in China.