State must resolve shellfish dispute quickly

The OlympianDecember 18, 2013 

Workers with Seattle Shellfish unload bags of geoduck planting tubes Monday near their Harstine Island growing beds in Mason County as the company deals with China's ban on imports of shellfish from the west coast

STEVE BLOOM; STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

A stunning discrepancy in the toxin levels of geoducks harvested from the Puget Sound could put many employees of the important South Sound shellfish industry out of work before Christmas. That should be sufficient incentive for the state to waste no time in resolving the problem.

As The Olympian’s Rolf Boone reported Tuesday, Chinese officials said they found shockingly high levels of toxin and arsenic in geoducks shipped from Puget Sound. They said the geoducks contained 600 to 1,500 micrograms of PSP toxin per 100 grams of tissue. A level of 80 micrograms is considered dangerous to human health.

Chinese officials banned the importation of all Puget Sound bivalve shellfish as a result, including mussels, oysters and clams, as well as geoducks. That’s a huge blow to shellfish growers that depend on the Asian markets, such as Taylor Shellfish and Seattle Shellfish in Shelton.

The state Department of Natural Resources says its own testing showed levels of PSP ranging from below 38 micrograms to a high of 62 micrograms. Both the DNR and the Chinese routinely test for toxin levels, so such an enormous difference after decades of commerce cannot be easily explained.

The state does not routinely test for arsenic, however. It must explain why it does not and how arsenic has made its way into shellfish. In any case, the DNR should start testing for arsenic immediately if it’s a measurement used by the Chinese and other Asian countries. Domestic consumers would benefit, too.

The DNR has submitted its testing data to the Federal Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But it should not stop there. Diplomatic channels and international trade officials must engage because there is always the possibility that some type of geopolitics is at play.

American shellfish are popular menu items in Asian New Year’s celebrations. For many growers, that year-end bump in sales can make or break their year.

About half of the worldwide geoduck market of 12 million pounds comes from the Puget Sound. Taylor Shellfish exports up to 50,000 pounds of geoducks per month to China and another 10,000 pounds of oysters.

Losing that market at a critical time or for an extended period could force the Shelton companies to lay off workers at the worst possible time. That could in turn affect the regional economy.

In the interim, growers say that if the ban continues, they will shift sales efforts to the domestic market. But sales volumes would inevitably decline, and a flood of shellfish on the national market would push prices down.

This is a crisis for the South Sound shellfish industry and the families who depend on it. State and federal officials and lawmakers at both levels of government must make resolving this issue a top priority and do everything possible today.

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