U.S. officials say they will develop a new testing protocol to detect certain contaminants in shellfish, following their meeting with the Chinese government to discuss an end to that country’s ban on importing shellfish from most of the U.S. West Coast.
Representatives of the two countries’ governments met in Beijing last week for their first face-to-face discussion of China’s shellfish ban. China banned shellfish imports in December after officials there said they found high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning in a geoduck clam from Alaska and high levels of inorganic arsenic in a geoduck from southern Puget Sound.
U.S. officials said during a briefing with reporters Friday that the Chinese are satisfied with U.S. testing methods for paralytic shellfish poisoning but they’re still concerned about arsenic. High concentrations of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen, were found in the skin of geoduck harvested near Tacoma, Wash., last fall.
Americans don’t eat the skin. But the Chinese often do.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Paul Doremus said the U.S. will develop a new testing protocol for inorganic arsenic in shellfish.
“Ultimately it is up to China to decide whether they are satisfied that our testing mechanisms and overall protocols meets their standards,” he said.
Doremus said it was impossible to say when the ban might be lifted.
U.S. officials will meet within a week to put together the new testing protocols.
The ban has been in effect since November of 2013, costing the industry hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Representatives from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be in Beijing March 21 to discuss China’s remaining concerns about shellfish imports. China instituted the ban when officials found high levels of arsenic and a naturally occurring biotoxin in two samples of geoduck.
The shellfish with high levels of biotoxin came from Ketchikan, Alaska.
The shellfish contaminated with arsenic were harvested near a site in Tacoma where a copper smelter operated along southern Puget Sound.
The smelter was in operation for 100 years and shellfish beds nearby were closed until 2007.
The state Department of Health did some follow-up testing on geoduck from the area and says the shellfish are safe to eat.
The Locavore movement is thriving in the Northwest — with one big exception. When it comes to Puget Sound geoduck clams, the shellfish industry and local chefs are still trying to create a demand for them at home.
Geoduck clams from Washington state are prized in Asia, creating a lucrative market for the Puget Sound region’s tribal and commercial shellfish harvesters. But two months ago, China banned all shellfish imports from most of the West Coast after finding high levels of arsenic in a sample from Washington. The move has hit Washington hard, particularly the geoduck industry.
And that has the industry turning to local chefs to help boost demand close to home.
Local chef Michael Gifford remembers his first experience with geoduck clams. He got his first taste at a sushi restaurant soon after he moved to Seattle from New Jersey.
“I was like, wow, I’ve never seen this before. It’s really unique. We’re very fortunate here to have this product,” Gifford says.
These days Gifford is the chef at the Seattle restaurant How To Cook A Wolf, where geoduck clams make regular appearances on the menu. He extolled the virtues of the region’s largest clam recently while preparing geoduck crudo, or in the raw.
“This is going to get a little raunchy. As you can see the geoduck is a very phallic looking animal,” he said, standing in the stainless steel kitchen as two large clams sat on a shelf nearby, their foot-long siphons draping down.
“So what we do is we bring them in, let them relax a little bit, let them go down and get out to its natural length,” Gifford quips. These necks can stretch to a meter in length.
Gifford is ready to remove the skin from a geoduck’s neck. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.
Gifford places the clams into boiling water, then into ice water to “shock them.” This process makes it easy to remove the outer skin of the geoduck.
When these filter-feeders are burrowed in the sand and mud of Puget Sound, their outer skin gathers more arsenic and other trace metals than does the rest of their body. The Washington Department of Health confirmed this in December, when it went back and tested more than 50 geoduck clams after China instituted its ban. The skin of every single clam had amounts of arsenic that exceed levels that China has deemed safe for human consumption.
The clams’ other body tissue types — those found in the neck, the mantle and the gut ball — were OK in all but one sample tested by the Washington state agency.
Bill Dewey is with Shelton, Wash.-based Taylor Shellfish Farms, which bills itself as the largest producer of geoducks in the United States. He says the company has had more testing done on several different kinds of shellfish it sells, including geoduck. The levels of metals are all very low, but they’re there.
“You will see arsenic, cadmium, selenium, all sorts of different metals some good for you some not good for you in all your shellfish,” Dewey says.
The Washington Department of Health rigorously tests shellfish for biotoxins and bacteria that can make people sick immediately. But it doesn’t regularly test for metals. Past tests from the DOH have shown metals in shellfish at levels below public health concerns. As with all seafood, it’s a question of how much shellfish you eat.
As Michael Gifford slices pearly strips of flesh off of the neck of a geoduck clam, it’s hard to think of anything other than the next step in his recipe.
He’s finely mincing Fresno chili peppers and celery. Then he smears a green stripe of avocado puree onto the plate. Finally, Gifford arranges the silken white, paper-thin strips of geoduck in ruffles.
“So then, the real fun. We’ll dress it with some nice olive oil. Little bit of lemon. We use fleur de sel, a very nice sea salt,“ Gifford says. “It’s not full of brine, but you’re getting that hint of the ocean.”
For centuries native Americans harvested geoducks from the tideflats of Puget Sound. (The word “geoduck” comes from the Nisqually word “gweduc,” meaning “dig deep.”) These were the biggest clams to be found — weighing as much as 16 pounds or more. Northwest Indians ate them fresh or smoked. By the late 1800s the region’s white settlers came to consider them a delicacy. But by the mid-20th century geoducks had all but disappeared from area beaches. To prevent the clams from becoming extinct, the government made it illegal to sell geoduck clams in restaurants and markets.
In the 1970s scuba divers discovered that geoduck clams hadn’t actually been harvested to extinction. They were bountiful in the deeper waters of Puget Sound. But by then, few Northwesterners had an interest in dinning on them in area restaurants. But the story took a different turn in Asia. An intense marketing campaign popularized them in Asia — especially among the newly rich Chinese — causing the price to soar. They’re an especially popular delicacy around the lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year), which takes place this year on Jan. 31.
A geoduck crudo prepared by chef Michael Gifford. Credit: Ashley Ahearn
Though the clams are popular abroad, local markets are still growing. Bill Dewey says for the past decade or so, Taylor Shellfish has been actively promoting geoduck to restaurants around the Northwest. There are now close to 20 restaurants in Seattle with geoduck on the menu.
Geoduck can sell for close to $100 per pound in China, while Seattle restaurants pay around $20 per pound. The domestic market isn’t making up for the industry’s losses abroad.
Dewey says his company has had to cut back. “We did our best through the holidays to keep people employed, but ultimately it’s gone on long enough that we’ve had to lay some people off,” Dewey says. Taylor has laid off 14 people and estimates its losses at upwards of $1 million.
The Chinese ban is affecting others, too. Divers with the Suquamish and other tribes have been out of work for weeks, losing thousands of dollars every day. The Department of Natural Resources is out close to $1 million in revenue from geoduck harvested on state lands.
Dewey says he’s optimistic that China might lift the ban soon.
For now, geoduck may be a tough sell for most Northwest diners. But if more chefs like Michael Gifford have their way with this quirky clam, the future might look a little more delicious.
Katie Campbell contributed to this report. Toni Tabora-Roberts produced this story for the web.
SEATTLE — Washington state officials said Tuesday they found lower contamination levels when they tested geoduck clams than those alleged by China when it said geoduck imported from Puget Sound had high levels of arsenic.
Chinese officials said they found inorganic arsenic levels of .5 parts per million in the shellfish they tested in October.
But Washington officials’ tests produced different results.
“Only one of the whole samples was above China’s standard of .5 (parts per million) and everything else was below that, so that was good news,” said Dave McBride, who oversaw the testing at the Washington Department of Health.
The Department of Health tested more than 50 geoduck clams from the allegedly contaminated area, analyzing the different body parts of the clams to compare arsenic concentration levels.
The details of the test results are perhaps revealing than the overall “whole sample” figures. The skin of the clams tested by Washington exceeded China’s safe levels of inorganic arsenic by as much as three times, although McBride said that should not be worrisome to China, given how the Chinese consume geoduck clams.
“People generally do not eat the skin and we would advise people, when you eat geoduck, to remove the skin,” he said. “What we think is that, for the vast majority of the public, this is not a health issue at all. Obviously, when we’re talking about a carcinogen there is always the risk for high consumers.”
McBride added that the whole, or averaged samples, for several other clams came close to the .5ppm limit set by the Chinese.
The World Health Organization is said to be considering setting safe levels for inorganic arsenic in food in the .2-.3ppm range in 2014.
The shellfish that tested high for inorganic arsenic in China were harvested from a tract of land managed by the Department of Natural Resources that has since been closed. The tract is within the shadow of a copper smelter that was operated near Tacoma for 100 years.
“Well we know that arsenic levels are elevated in the surface soils in that area,” said Marian Abbett, manager of the Tacoma smelter clean up for the Washington Department of Ecology. Soil samples from the surrounding land show levels of arsenic between 40 and 200ppm, though that number does not directly equate to levels of arsenic that will end up in the water, or in shellfish.
Soil arsenic levels resulting from the historic deposition by the Tacoma smelter
in the vicinity of the geoduck tracts of interest. (Courtesy: ATSDR/DOH)
Inorganic arsenic levels are higher in soils in the area immediately surrounding the smelter, though wind patterns also lead to higher concentrations ending up in soil samples to the northeast of the smelter, where the shellfish were harvested.
“I’d be nervous after a big rainfall event,” said Kathy Cottingham, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Dartmouth College who studies arsenic exposure and human health. “With soils that contaminated you need to worry about the episodic events of a big rainstorm or snowmelt causing pulses into the water.”
The area was closed to all shellfish harvest until 2007, when the Puyallup Tribe petitioned state agencies to reopen the tract for geoduck harvest. At that time the Department of Health conducted tests on geoduck in the area and found levels of .05ppm. That’s an order of magnitude below the amount found by the Chinese in October of 2013 and well within the safety parameters set by the Chinese.
However, state agencies have not tested for inorganic arsenic or other metals in shellfish from the area since it was reopened in 2007.
Arsenic is a carcinogen that has also been associated with long-term respiratory effects, disruption of immune system function, cardiovascular effects, diabetes and neurodevelopmental problems in kids.
“There’s no safe level, but at some point you’ve crossed the threshold to being really dangerous and we don’t quite know where that threshold is at this point,” Cottingham said.
The Food and Drug Administration has delayed setting a safe level for arsenic in food. Washington state does not regularly test for arsenic in shellfish.
McBride said he did not see a need to test the Tacoma site further after his agency’s extensive sampling.
“I think we have a pretty good handle that this area is pretty clean and wouldn’t require further testing,” he said. “The lab results have been sent to (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and NOAA has sent them on to the state department to the Chinese (as of yesterday). We’re waiting to hear if and when the ban might be lifted.”
Update Dec. 24, 9:00 a.m.: NOAA’s Seafood Inspection Program has issued a report to Chinese officials with its findings regarding the tainted geoducks from Alaska and Washington. In the letter, U.S. authorities note the actions that have been taken in response, ensure that geoduck clams and mollusks for export from Area 67 meet safety requirement and request lifting of China’s ban on shellfish imports.
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.
In early December, the Chinese government instituted a ban on all shellfish imports from a large swathe of the West Coast after finding two bad clams. One from Alaska had high levels of the biotoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning. The other came from Puget Sound and tested high for inorganic arsenic. Washington does not test for arsenic in shellfish.
The crushing economic impacts of China’s move are hitting tribal fisherman 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.
John Jones, a geoduck diver with the Suquamish Tribe, is out of work right now
because of the Chinese ban on shellfish imports. (Photo: Ashley Ahearn)
“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.
Waters from which China no longer permits the
import of clams, oysters and other bivalves.
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.”
On a typical morning, Lief Cofield and his three crew members pile into a 30-foot aluminum boat to harvest hundreds of pounds of geoduck clams.
But for more than two weeks, his boat, the Eagle Scout, has been tied to the dock at Fair Harbor Marina in North Bay, near Shelton — the dive suits stored, the equipment stashed and the crew stuck on land.
“We are supposed to be harvesting 1,500 pounds a day this week,” said Cofield, 26, who is a dive supervisor at Taylor Shellfish Farms in Shelton. “My guys make $15 an hour plus a 10- to 15-cent per-pound bonus on what they personally harvest; and that can really add up.”
His crew is not alone. Since Dec. 3, when seafood inspectors in China suspended imports of West Coast geoduck and other bivalve shellfish such as oysters after reporting high levels of algae toxin or arsenic, harvesters along tribal, state and private shorelines have all been hit.
Altogether, the state produces more than 6 million pounds of geoduck clams annually, and last year almost 90 percent was sold to China.
But now, tribal harvesting companies have laid off divers. Geoduck farms have reduced hours for many workers, and wild-geoduck divers all around Puget Sound are out of work.
Meanwhile, the state is missing out on well over $1 million in revenue from the wild harvest. Washington auctions off rights to harvest geoduck on state aquatic lands; this year those rights were worth about $12 a pound.
“We only fished two days last week,” said Cendtary Xeno, a geoduck diver for Global Pacific Seafood. “Everyone has bills to pay and families, and lack of work at the holiday time is pretty bad.”
Currently, state and federal agencies are waiting to get more information from Chinese officials, and the Department of Health is preparing to start testing arsenic levels on Thursday.
While the investigation is ongoing, geoduck harvesting in Washington is essentially at a standstill.
According to the Washington Department of Natural Resources, an average of 50,000 pounds of wild geoduck are harvested weekly by divers such as Xeno, with Global Pacific.
With almost 1.1 million pounds of state-regulated wild geoduck left to harvest before March 31, the department estimates the current ban represents not only lost income for fishermen, but also $600,000 per week in lost revenue for the state.
Some tribes and companies have already completed their harvests for the year. But those who have not are missing out on millions of dollars’ worth of product that would have been shipped to China.
Suquamish Seafoods, run by that tribe, exports almost all of its geoduck to China, and has laid off all 24 of its divers.
The tribe still had 140,000 pounds of geoduck to harvest before the end of the season in March. If the ban is not lifted soon, divers may not be able to finish harvesting, said Tony Forsman, the company’s general manager.
The tribe was selling geoduck for $11.50 a pound before the ban took effect, so the Suquamish Tribe could potentially lose out on more than $1.6 million worth of clams.
Divers receive 40 percent of the take for the geoduck they harvest, meaning each diver is at a risk of losing $67,000 — a large portion of their annual income — right before the holiday season, said George Hill, the harvest coordinator and a diver for Suquamish Seafoods.
“You can’t think about Christmas when you have to think of next month’s bills,” Hill said. “We have bills to pay, and not knowing when we are going to go back to work is very hard on us.”
To make up for the lost income, the 47-year-old Hill, who has five children, may look for a diving job harvesting sea cucumber. He hopes the ban can be lifted in time for the tribe to finish harvesting this year’s quota.
Seattle Shellfish, a company that farms only geoduck and ships exclusively to China, has shifted its 18 divers to other duties, such as geoduck farm maintenance, since they are not currently harvesting the giant clam.
Taylor Shellfish Farms, one of the largest geoduck providers in the state, ships only half of its harvested geoduck to China, which means there is still some work to be done. However, many employees have been moved to half-time and have been given other tasks, company spokesman Bill Dewey said.
Both farms say they will have to consider layoffs if the ban continues much longer.
At the Taylor plant in Shelton, holding tanks are usually packed full of thousands of pounds of live, freshly harvested geoduck. Starting at 11 a.m. each day, the four-man geoduck team, led by Gustavo Hernandez, has to work quickly to sort and pack all the clams before the first truck leaves for the airport at 4 p.m.
Last Thursday, the men raised the lid on the holding tank and stared down at the measly 1,000 pounds of geoduck, stacked in orange crates, that had been beach-harvested the night before. They didn’t start packing and sorting until 2 p.m. and were in no hurry.
“This is usually the busiest time of year,” said Hernandez, 35. “But without exporting to China, we just don’t have a lot to do.”
Geoducks first caught on as a banquet delicacy in Hong Kong, and the clams’ appeal has spread to other parts of China.
Geoduck harvesters, the state Department of Health, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) all have been scrambling to understand the suspension.
Fish inspectors in China identified high levels of arsenic and a toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, in two shipments of geoduck — one from Washington and one from Alaska.
Friday, state and tribal officials closed the 135-acre geoduck harvesting area outside Federal Way where the Washington geoduck shipment originated.
The 385-pound shipment was harvested by the Puyallup Tribe in Poverty Bay, on what the Department of Natural Resources calls the Redondo Tract.
PSP is a biotoxin produced by algae that shellfish eat. In humans, high levels of either PSP or arsenic can lead to severe illness or even death.
However, testing in October by the Department of Health found PSP levels in the Redondo Tract well below internationally accepted limits.
Because there is no federal safety standard in place for arsenic, the last arsenic testing done in the area was in 2007. Levels found at that time were not of concern for human health, according to an agency spokesman.
The Department of Health originally had focused on investigating PSP levels, but last week the agency learned the Washington shipment was blocked because of arsenic, while PSP was the issue with the shipment from Alaska.
“The last thing I would want to have happen is for someone to get sick,” said Cofield, from Taylor Shellfish. “But closing down the whole West Coast because of two shipments seems a little heavy-handed.”
The Alaska shipment of geoduck originated from outside Ketchikan, and that state has also provided federal agencies with detailed reports, said Jerry Borchert, the marine biotoxin coordinator with the Washington Department of Health shellfish program.
Borchert said China uses a different unit of measure when reporting PSPs, and officials here don’t know how Chinese inspectors tested the arsenic levels. “So we don’t know how they came up with the level they have reported,” Borchert said.
“We are full of questions and are looking for some answers,” he said. “We are waiting for more details.”
NOAA, the federal agency working directly with the Chinese, sent a report with the health department’s PSP findings to Chinese officials, along with questions about how the toxicity levels were measured. Federal officials also are awaiting more information from China, and it is still unknown when the ban might be lifted.
Information from The Seattle Times archive was used in this report.
Coral Garnick: 206-464-2422 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @coralgarnick