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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Washington now has an official state oyster

Monday, March 10th, 2014

Washington state now has an official state oyster, thanks to the lobbying efforts of 14-year-old Claire Thompson, who raised the prominence of the Olympia oyster as part as a school project. That’s assuming, of course, that the governor signs the bill.

I talked about Claire’s effort, along with Olympia oyster restoration projects, in a previous Water Ways post on Feb. 14.

The bill designating Ostrea lurida as the state oyster first passed the Senate Feb. 13 on a 47-1 vote. It was approved March 5 in the House, 94-4, after an amendment expanded the language of the bill to this:

“This native oyster species plays an important role in the history and culture that surrounds shellfish in Washington state and along the west coast of the United States. Some of the common and historic names used for this species are Native, Western, Shoalwater, and Olympia.”

The Senate then agreed to the amendment and passed the bill into law today, again on a 47-1 vote. Michael Baumgartner, a Republican from Spokane, was the only dissenting voice in the Senate.

Opponents in the House were Reps. Richard DeBolt, Chehalis; Brad Klippert, Kennewick; Jason Overstreet, Lynden; and Rep. Elizabeth Scott, Monroe. All are Republicans.

When Claire testified on the Senate bill in the House Government Operations and Elections Committee, she looked toward the future. When she testified on the earlier House version, she was looking to the past. You can hear her testimony in the viewer on this page, or at 56:40 on TVW.

Here’s what she said, in part, to the House committee:

“The last time I came to testify I talked about the history of this oyster. This time I would like to talk to you about what I hope is the future of this oyster…

“I am only 14 and most of my life still lies ahead. To make my future and the futures of all the kids who live around Puget Sound better, I would like you to not only pass this bill but get as many of these and other bivalves seeded and into the Puget Sound as quickly as possible. This is because these oysters filter the water and can help regulate harmful algal blooms, including the red tide. By keeping algae down, they increase the overall oxygen content for fish and crustaceans and all the other animals.

“In the large numbers that Puget Sound needs, these oysters can link together to build coral-reef-like structures that provide an ecosystem habitat of room and hiding for young sea animals and all the kelps and sea plants that we are losing… Oyster beds this thick keep sediments anchored and the entire Puget Sound in balance.”


Any ideas for a no-discharge zone in Puget Sound?

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Washington Department of Ecology is pushing ahead with its plan to create a “no-discharge zone” for Puget Sound, which would prohibit the discharge of sewage from boats, even those with a Type II marine sanitation device. Check out my story last week in the Kitsap Sun, Feb. 19 (subscription).

Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound // Washington Department of Ecology

Proposed no-discharge zone for Puget Sound
Washington Department of Ecology

For many people, it is disconcerting to think about mobile toilets traveling everywhere in Puget Sound and discharging their waste anywhere and at any time.

Kitsap Public Health District has gained a reputation for tracking down sources of pollution and getting them cleaned up. If you have a failing septic system, for example, you are expected to get it fixed. Many of the Dyes Inlet beaches between Bremerton and Silverdale were reopened to commercial shellfish harvesting, thanks in no small part to these persistent efforts to clean up bacterial pollution.

Sewage-treatment plants still discharge some bacteria, despite advanced treatment processes. Consequently, shellfish beds are permanently closed around treatment plant outfalls, with the closure zone dependent on the level of sewage treatment. And when there are sewage spills, long stretches of beach may be closed to shellfish harvesting for 10 days or longer.

When they are working properly, Type II marine sanitation devices aboard boats are fairly good at killing bacteria, although levels are still above state water-quality standards. Less certain is what happens to human viruses, including hepatitis, that may not be killed. In addition, marine toilets release chemicals — such as chlorine, quaternary ammonia and formaldehyde — into the water.

To delve further, check out:

It’s not hard to see why the goal would be to eliminate discharges of boater waste into Puget Sound, assuming that sufficient pumpout stations exist for people to offload their waste. Pumpout stations are connected to sewage-treatment systems, which do a better job of disinfection and remove most solids that can contribute to algae blooms and low-oxygen conditions.

Creating a no-discharge zone is one goal of the Puget Sound Action Agenda (PDF 16.4 mb) developed by the Puget Sound Partnership.

Ecology Director Maia Bellon seemed to strike the right tone when she announced the petition for a no-discharge zone (PDF 8.1 mb) in Puget Sound:

“We want to reach out and invite comments, questions and suggestions over this draft proposal. We’re working with boating, shipping and fishing leaders, and now is the time for broader perspective and feedback. Everyone who lives here has a vested interest in a healthy Puget Sound.”

Her approach leaves the door open to some creative solutions for getting everyone in compliance with the no-discharge zone. As I showed in last week’s story, the no-discharge zone could be a hardship for some tugboat and fishing boat operators. One estimate for converting a tugboat is $125,000.

Ecology’s solution so far has been simple: Give those without holding tanks three years to install the tanks and plug up theirs discharge pipes.

Other solutions may be possible, although they could create administrative burdens for Ecology. What about the idea of creating an exemption for boats that have no holding tanks? Boat owners could pay an annual fee for the exemption, and the money could go into a fund to assist owners with the cost of conversion. Maybe a conversion should be required, if necessary, at the time a boat is sold. It’s just an idea.

When applying for an exemption from the no-discharge zone, boat owners should agree to discharge treated wastes at a safe distance from the beach. Maybe they should be required to know where certified shellfish beds are located and stay even farther away.

I realize these ideas would complicate a simple plan, and maybe there are better ideas. In general, I believe that a reasonable solution should be proportional to the problem. We should not kill a rat with heavy explosives, while ignoring the cost of repairs.

To see how more than 20 other states are addressing no-discharge zones, visit the Environmental Protection Agency’s website on vessel sewage discharges and a state-by-state breakdown of no-discharge zones.

When I broke this story in September, I interviewed others who had thoughts on the issue. See Kitsap Sun, Sept. 25 (subscription).

For recreational boaters, check out “Beating the Pumpout Station Blues” by Capt. Mike Brough of the Coast Guard.


Student project could lead to official state oyster

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Nobody was really talking about designating an official “Washington state oyster” until 14-year-old Claire Thompson came along. Now the state Senate has approved a bill, on a 47-1 vote, to list the Olympia oyster as the state’s official oyster.

Claire is an eighth grader at Olympia’s Nova School, which requires a yearlong project involving something that students care deeply about and can make a difference. Claire, who hopes to become a marine biologist or oceanographer, developed a sense of history for the once-prominent Olympia oyster, as we learned from her testimony before the Senate Governmental Operations Committee.

The full testimony on SB 6145 falls between 40:00 and 51:00 in the video on this page.

“Pollution near historic beds caused many closures of the fishery and rallied the oyster farmers to fight for the earliest pollution control regulations for clean water and cleanup,” Claire told the committee.

Ostrea lurida, the scientific name for the Olympia oyster, is the only native oyster to the region. The Pacific oyster, imported from Japan in the 1920s, makes up most of the production today, but the tiny Olympia is making a comeback as a unique delicacy with natural ties to the region.

Claire talked about ocean acidification, caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and its ongoing threat to the ecological health of Puget Sound, Hood Canal and other bays and estuaries.

“Ostrea lurida,” she said, “stands as a living symbol of Washington’s history, from the earliest Native Americans through the pioneers down through statehood to the present day, deserving protection as our native oyster. Please join me in fighting to protect not only our native oyster but our waters as well.”

Claire is the daughter of Rowland Thompson, lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington, who encouraged her to develop her project and speak before the Legislature.

Jim Jesernig of Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association said he supports the bill, even though it came as a surprise to his group.

“We have been very pleased working with Claire,” Jesernig said. “It’s very interesting. From the industry, we did not see this. We were working on derelict vessels and a whole bunch of things going on. Claire has worked with folks in Willapa Harbor and the South Sound. We would like to support this in any way.”

If next approved by the house, the Olympia oyster will become the official state oyster, joining:

  • The orca, the official marine mammal;
  • The Olympic marmot, the official endemic mammal;
  • The willow goldfinch, the official bird;
  • The steelhead trout, the official fish; and
  • The common green darner dragonfly, the official insect.

By the way, Puget Sound Restoration Fund, a nonprofit group, has been working for years to restore the Olympia oyster to Puget Sound. I first wrote about this issue in 1999 in a piece called “Native oyster making a comeback — with help.” A companion piece about the taste of the little oyster was titled “Olympia Oyster Gains Respect.” I also presented the tribal perspective in “Tribal Officials Welcome Oyster Restoration.”

Since then, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has helped rebuild native oyster populations in many bays, with one of the greatest successes in Liberty Bay near Poulsbo. Betsy Peabody, executive director, told me this morning that her group has great hopes for success in Dyes Inlet near Silverdale and in Port Gamble Bay in North Kitsap. A new oyster hatchery in Manchester is expected to be in operation later this year.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed a long-term restoration plan for the Olympia oyster with 19 areas listed for habitat restoration:

Drayton Harbor
Bellingham Bay (South) Shoreline, Portage Island, and Chuckanut Bay
Samish Bay
Padilla Bay
Fidalgo Bay
Similk Bay
Sequim Bay
Discovery Bay
Kilisut Harbor
Port Gamble Bay
Quilcene Bay
Union River/Big and Little Mission Creek(s) deltas
Liberty Bay and sub-inlets
Dyes Inlet and sub-inlets
Sinclair Inlet
Point Jefferson-Orchard Point complex of passages and inlets
Budd Inlet
Henderson Inlet
Harstine/Squaxin Islands complex of passages and inlets


Geoduck market expands to Chinese neighbors

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The market for geoducks harvested in Washington state has shifted from China to other Asian countries, primarily Hong Kong and Vietnam, according to certificates issued by the Washington State Department of Health.

Kitsap Sun photo

Kitsap Sun photo

We learned a week ago that the Chinese ban on imports from the U.S. West Coast will continue until Chinese health authorities better understand the U.S. system of protecting public health. See Water Ways, Feb. 4, with links to other sources of information.

The ban caused exporters to find new markets. I reported these numbers in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription):

“Health certificates issued by the Washington State Department of Health totaled 757 in January — more than double the 373 certificates issued in January 2013, when shipments were still going into China. These certificates are required to identify the shellfish-growing area and ensure that a given shipment of seafood is safe to eat.

“Of the 757 certificates issued in January, 409 designated shipments into Hong Kong, while 243 designated shipments into Vietnam. Other shipments were to Malaysia, 38; Thailand, 24; Indonesia, 8; and a number of countries with smaller shipments. Because shipments were closed off to China in January, no certificates were issued for that country.”

Wild geoduck harvesting is a multi-million industry, bringing significant revenues to businesses, tribes and state government.

Yesterday’s story, which was picked up by the Associated Press, describes how state and tribal geoduck divers appear to be on track to take their allocations of deep-water geoducks.

How many of these giant clams are getting into China illicitly and by what routes has been hard to track down. I have collected many rumors and comments on background, but I’ve been unable to verify the most provocative stories.

A new harvest year begins in April with new allocations of geoducks for the state and tribes. Meanwhile, the Department of Natural Resources has scheduled a bid opening for state geoduck tracts later this month.

It will be interesting to see how the Chinese ban on imports from the U.S. West Coast affects the price of geoducks over the coming year. So far, after a short closure when the ban was imposed, prices for wild geoducks have been holding fairly stable, according to officials involved in the market.


China maintains ban on shellfish imports

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Business and government officials involved in the lucrative geoduck export market got some bad news on Friday, when federal authorities released a letter they had received from the Chinese government.

Kitsap Sun photo

Kitsap Sun photo

The letter raises many questions — at least from a Chinese perspective — about how the U.S. regulatory system protects public health. The message from Chinese health authorities dashes the hopes of industry officials for a quick lifting of the Chinese ban on shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.

I wrote about this issue for Saturday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription). My story was picked up by the Associated Press and distributed widely. (If you don’t subscribe to the Sun, see The Columbian, Vancouver, for the AP version.)

Washington state has a proud reputation for protecting public health when it comes to shellfish, and the letter from China does little to dispel suspicions among those who think that China may have ulterior motives. After all, Chinese authorities have done nothing to limit the geographic scope of the import ban or even limit the ban to geoducks only.

A statement (PDF 114 kb) from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concludes that the letter contains about 20 separate requests for information about testing and safety.

You may wish to read the the letter from China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (PDF 150 kb). As translated, the letter includes this statement:

“We don’t not have a full understanding of the US regulatory system including the definition of sea region and management, the official monitoring on PSP and heavy metals and the responsibility among the relevant government agencies, and we have not conducted an on-site evaluation neither.”

The letter says the suspension of imports may be reduced to a specific area after certain questions are answered. It calls on the U.S. to develop an action plan for evaluation and outlines a review process, including a visit by an “expert team” from China to evaluate the geoduck inspection programs.

Officials at all levels in the U.S. say they are evaluating the questions posed in the letter and preparing a coordinated response.

Previous entries in Water Ways:

Jan. 9, 2014: Geoducks test OK, but what’s behind Chinese ban?

Dec. 24, 2013: Health officials to quickly test geoducks for arsenic


Chinese TV discusses shellfish import ban

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

U.S. officials say they have not heard a word from Chinese health authorities since the Washington State Department of Health sent test results showing that geoducks from Puget Sound are safe to eat.

A ban on shellfish imports from the Northwest continues. By all accounts, it appears that U.S. shellfish exporters will miss a chance to provide geoducks, oysters and other shellfish to China during lucrative Chinese New Year celebrations next week.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has sent the health department’s test results to China, NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barclay told me yesterday. “We will continue to work with folks to see if we can resolve this issue,” she said.

Meanwhile, Chinese Central Television (CCTV), a government-sponsored TV network in China, has produced a video describing the issue, including the economic effects on shellfish growers. It’s a pretty straightforward piece, but offers no hint about what further steps may be taken by the Chinese government.

For background, see my last entry in Water Ways on Jan. 9. which includes links to other sources. The same goes for an entry on Dec. 24 and the first one on Dec. 17.

The bottom line is that nothing has happened for weeks. Shellfish growers are waiting patiently, hoping this does issue does not grow into an extended trade dispute.


Geoducks test OK, but what’s behind Chinese ban?

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Now it is up to Chinese officials to decide upon shellfish imports to their country, as uncomfortable as that may be for U.S exporters. I’ve begun to learn about international trade policies to better understand the confusing actions of Chinese health authorities.

As you’ve probably heard by now, officials with the Washington State Department of Health have concluded from a new round of testing that arsenic in geoducks from Poverty Bay presents no legitimate health concern. That seems to contradict findings from Chinese health authorities, who cited high levels of arsenic in Poverty Bay geoducks when they suspended shellfish imports from the U.S. West Coast.

Unfortunately, the Chinese have failed to reveal how they came to their findings, and they discarded all the geoducks used in their tests. Divers from the Washington Department of Natural Resources collected new geoducks from Poverty Bay, and state health experts conducted new tests. The findings were released Tuesday, and I covered that in some detail in a story published in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun (subscription). Also, check out Water Ways, Dec. 24, to understand the different types of arsenic.

USTR report

Results from the Washington state health lab showed that arsenic levels in all parts of the geoduck came in under the Chinese limit of 0.5 parts per million, except for the skin. Dave McBride, a toxicologist for the state health department, told me that cooks in both China and the U.S. blanch the geoduck to remove the inedible skin, so that’s not a factor.

But even if one consumes the whole geoduck, tests on the “whole body” found only one composite sample out of 12 that exceeded the Chinese standard. Of course, it would have been more convincing if none of the whole-body samples came in above 0.5 ppm.

A private lab also tested geoducks from Poverty Bay, and those results came in even lower. The differing findings probably resulted from the different methods used, Dave McBride told me. It might be wise to try to reconcile the differences and report the scientific uncertainty (possible range) represented by the two techniques.

Meanwhile, I’ve begun talking to experts on Chinese trade, who say it is not unusual for governments around the world to use alleged health concerns to gain a trade advantage.

As I reported in yesterday’s story, the U.S. Trade Representative, a presidential cabinet post, reported to Congress at the end of last year about what appeared to be unjustified health concerns blocking a variety of agricultural imports into China:

“In 2013, serious problems have remained for U.S. exporters, who are faced with nontransparent application of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, many of which have appeared to lack scientific bases and have impeded market access for many U.S. agricultural products.

“China’s seemingly unnecessary and arbitrary inspection-related import requirements also continued to impose burdens and regulatory uncertainty on U.S. agricultural producers exporting to China in 2013 … Products most affected in 2013 included poultry, pork and beef.”

Dongsheng Zang, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in Chinese trade, and Debra Glassman, faculty director of the UW’s Global Business Center, helped me understand the trade situation for yesterday’s story. Here are some of the key points I came away with:

  • Chinese officials don’t always base their decisions on the best evidence,, even though agreements under the World Trade Organization require them to do so. In 2011, China stopped imports of oysters from Washington state following reports of a few people getting sick from eating raw oysters from Hood Canal. Zang says Chinese officials based their actions only on “media reports.”
  • Import bans often come quickly and take a long time to resolve. That happens not just in China but in other countries and the European Union, especially when the dispute must be resolved by the World Trade Organization.
  • International agreements require that any import restrictions must be the “least-trade-restrictive” to protect the public, such as banning shellfish from specific bays where problems are identified, Glassman said.
  • The Chinese ban on U.S shellfish could be designed for a domestic audience inside China. “I can only speculate,” Zang said. “Food safety is a huge issue in China. It’s really hard to say whether this (geoduck ban) is about public health or domestic policy.”

An official in the office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington, D.C., told me (on background) that the office is watching this issue closely. If the shellfish ban develops into a full-fledged trade dispute, that office will become involved.

I realize that geoduck harvesters and government officials don’t want to accuse the Chinese of acting inappropriately. They just hope that the ban will be lifted without a drawn-out dispute. Meanwhile, those in the industry are losing millions of dollars by being shut off from their most important market for the giant clams.


Health officials to quickly test geoducks for arsenic

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013

Shellfish and toxicology experts with the Washington State Department of Health are rushing to test new samples of geoducks from Poverty Bay near Federal Way. Poverty Bay is the apparent source of the geoducks that triggered a Chinese ban on the imports of all bivalves from the U.S. West Coast.

Photo: Washington Sea Grant

Photo: Washington Sea Grant

Since I wrote about this issue in Water Ways last Tuesday, state health officials have learned that arsenic — not paralytic shellfish poison — was cited by Chinese health officials as the cause of their concern in the Poverty Bay geoducks.

Past studies by state researchers have concluded that arsenic is not a health concern in shellfish taken from Puget Sound, based on sampling from some of the most polluted bays in the region. A letter (PDF 118 kb) sent last week from the U.S. Seafood Inspection Program to China’s health officials calls for China to lift its unusual ban. The letter cites a 2007 health assessment on arsenic in geoducks from Poverty Bay, where the giant clams were deemed safe to eat.

As a precaution, Washington Department of Natural Resources has closed the 135-acre Redondo Tract in Poverty Bay to shellfish harvesting until the Chinese ban can be resolved, according to a statement issued Friday from Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark.

One of the complicating factors in dealing with arsenic in shellfish is that the organic forms (primarily arsenobetaine) are not toxic, yet they are far more prevalent than the toxic inorganic forms (arsenic III and arsenic V ).

It is far easier to measure total arsenic than to separate organic from inorganic forms, so researchers often make assumptions. To be extra safe, they have assumed for years that toxic inorganic arsenic is less than 10 percent of total arsenic. Now, they have begun to rely on more recent geoduck studies from Seattle’s Richmond Beach (PDF 327 kb) that showed the inorganic form of arsenic to be less than 1 percent of total arsenic.

Dave McBride, a toxicologist with Washington’s Department of Health, told me the Chinese were reporting levels of arsenic at 1.7 parts per million, but they failed to say whether that was total arsenic or inorganic arsenic. The Chinese health limit was reported as 0.5 parts per million inorganic arsenic.

It also makes a difference whether the whole geoduck was tested or just the edible parts. The skin, which is generally discarded when cooking, appears to concentrate more arsenic than other parts, but the levels still are not high enough to be a concern.

A 2002 study of shellfish from several polluted water bodies in Puget Sound (PDF 1.5 mb) found levels of inorganic arsenic in clams to fall in a range from 0.015 to 0.035 parts per million. A 2007 health assessment of geoducks from Poverty Bay (PDF 874 kb) found total arsenic levels ranging from 2.28 of 4.96 parts per million.

Assuming inorganic arsenic at 1 percent of total arsenic the maximum value is .05 parts per million for shellfish from Poverty Bay. That’s one-tenth the level of concern reported by the Chinese.

Initially, Poverty Bay was an issue because of two sewage outfalls in the area and the proximity to Tacoma’s former ASARCO smelter — even though most airborne pollution landing on the water gets well dispersed. But the formal health assessment allayed concerns about arsenic and other metals as well.

Arsenic always raises initial concerns, because its inorganic form is known to disrupt the metabolism of multi-celled organisms, including humans. Also, it has been known to cause cancer. Because inorganic arsenic levels in shellfish are normally low, no federal or state standards have been established.

In response to the Chinese ban, the Department of Natural Resources went out yesterday and collected new geoduck samples from Poverty Bay. The idea will be to present findings on both total arsenic and inorganic arsenic, thanks to more sophisticated analytical equipment at the Department of Health laboratory.

Three geoducks will be put together to create a composite sample. In all, two composite samples each will be associated with 12 different locations in the bay, according to McBride.

Edible geoduck tissue will be separated from the “gutball,” which may be prepared by some Chinese cooks, I’m told. If enough samples are available, the whole geoduck (minus the shell) may be tested as well, or possibly just the skin.

One long day of processing is planned for Thursday, and the samples will be run through analytical equipment over the weekend, McBride told me. A report on the findings can be expected next week.

For information about the China ban on shellfish, check out a fact sheet from the state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection (PDF 282 kb).


‘Pulse of Puget Sound’ series halfway done

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Sunday marked the halfway point in my ongoing series “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” which examines the health of our waterway and asks the question, “With all the money being spent on restoration, are we making any progress?”

food web

For me, the series so far has been an adventure and a learning experience, thanks to abundant help from the many great scientists and smart policy makers we have in this region.

The first half of the project has focused largely on species, including humans; herring and organisms at the base of the food web; salmon and marine fish; marine mammals; and Sunday’s piece on birds (subscription).

Still to come are stories about marine water quality, freshwater quality, upland habitat, water quantity and the future.

As a reporter, I regret that everyone can’t read all these stories immediately without a subscription to the Kitsap Sun, but I have to trust that these kinds of business decisions will allow me to keep doing my work. Still, many of the stories, photos and graphics in this series are available now with or without subscription, starting with the lead page, “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound,” and moving through the series:

Some of the larger points from the latest seabird story:

  • Puget Sound has about 70 common species of marine birds. Many populations are in decline but some appear to be stable and a few are increasing.
  • The winter population is about four times as large as the summer population, reaching a peak of roughly half a million birds.
  • Because birds can fly from one place to another, their choices of location can tell us something about the health of one place compared to another in Puget Sound.
  • If the population of a wintering bird species is in decline, you need to know something about its migration route and nesting area before you can conclude that conditions in Puget Sound are to blame.
  • The marbled murrelet, a “threatened” species, is an odd bird, first identified by early explorers in the late 1700s but whose nesting habits weren’t discovered until 1974.
  • Researchers are trying to learn why two similar birds — tufted puffins and rhinoceros auklets — are faring differently in Puget Sound. Steep declines are seen for tufted puffins, which may be headed for an endangered species listing, while rhinoceros auklets are on the increase. Their varying behaviors are at the center of discussion.
  • Ecosystem indicators for birds, as chosen by the Puget Sound Partnership, are more involved than most other indicators. They focus on the densities of four bird species and also consider food supply and reproductive success.

Chinese geoduck ban creates industry turmoil

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

It was shocking to hear that China had banned imports of clams and oysters from most of the U.S. West Coast, This announcement came after Chinese health inspectors reported high levels of paralytic shellfish poison and arsenic in two shipments of geoducks coming into that country. (KUOW had the initial report.)

Photo: Washington Sea Grant

Photo: Washington Sea Grant

It turns out that one shipment of geoducks came from Poverty Bay near Federal Way in Puget Sound, and the other one came from Ketchikan, Alaska.

Washington state government as well as the state’s extensive shellfish industry pride themselves on a monitoring program designed to ensure that PSP levels for harvested geoducks remain well within safe limits. I frequently report PSP (“red tide”) closures when they occur on recreational beaches — and commercial shellfish are checked even more frequently.

The monitoring program for Washington state shellfish is recognized worldwide for its ability to keep unsafe shellfish off the market.

The initial memo (PDF 33 KB) from the Chinese government said inspectors had found levels of PSP at 30.2 mouse units per gram. Mouse units? I had never heard of such a measurement, although I know that live mice are often used in the monitoring tests. I learned that “mouse units” was an older standard of measurement, replaced by micrograms of toxin per 100 grams of shellfish tissue.

The use of mouse units was the first issue that threw everybody off. I received an explanation from Jerry Borchert of the state’s Office of Shellfish and Water Protection, and I offered this explanation in a story I wrote for today’s Kitsap Sun (subscription):

“The Dec. 3 letter imposing the shellfish embargo stated that paralytic shellfish poison was found in concentrations of 30.2 mouse-units per gram. Mouse-units are an older standard, based on the amount of poison it takes to kill a mouse. The more common measurement today is micrograms of toxin per 100 kilograms of shellfish tissue, Borchert said.

“‘We need to know what conversion factors they used,’ he said. ‘Based on the best information we have, which is sketchy, the levels were between 600 and 1,500 micrograms per 100 grams.’

“In contrast, reports on geoducks from the Poverty Bay tract were no greater than 62 micrograms between Sept. 26 and Oct. 24, according to a health investigation completed Friday. The most likely harvest date was found to be Oct. 5.

“Authorities will close an area when the toxin level reaches 80. In fact, the high toxin levels suggested by the Chinese memo might not have been reached in geoducks found anywhere in Puget Sound this year, Borchert said.”

You can read the report, “Investigation and Results Related to the Geoduck Shipment Linked to the Shellfish Import Ban Imposed by China” (PDF 209 KB).

Confusion over the toxin levels found by the Chinese inspectors has created a great deal of anxiety throughout state government and the shellfish industry in Washington state. Nobody wants to say that the Chinese made a mistake, especially when the only data available is a terse finding in a memo (PDF 33 KB) transmitted to U.S. authorities. In fact, everyone I have talked to has been careful not to say anything negative at all until the facts are all in.

The chance that the shellfish exported to China exceeded the international standard of 80 micrograms per 100 grams seems possible, given that samples sent to state officials reached 62. That could invoke a response, even though the action level of 80 is considered within a significant margin of safety. But if the Chinese inspectors are reporting toxin levels higher than 600, that raises other issues.

What about poaching? I think it would be hard to rule out the possibility that somebody illegally sold geoducks from another area where PSP levels were higher and said they were from Poverty Bay. Whether that could happen depends, at least in part, on how well officials are able to track the geoducks through the market.

John Weymer of the Puyallup Tribe told me that officials were able to track the geoducks in question back to a specific boat working in Poverty Bay. Since it was a harvest by the Puyallup Tribe, tribal inspectors were on hand to make sure that the harvested geoducks were accounted for until sold to an independent buyer, he said. There is no doubt, he added, that the geoducks sold from the bay in October met health standards.

Although numerous areas of Puget Sound showed toxin levels above 80 micrograms in some types of shellfish, I’m told that the number of areas that reached 600 to 1,500 in geoducks were rare, if that happened at all. Such a finding would create more doubt about the accuracy of the Chinese testing.

One of the things I wondered about was whether the Chinese could be acting in retaliation for ongoing U.S. actions regarding the safety of foods imported from China. Bans on Chinese chicken were imposed and then lifted, amid Chinese complaints to the World Trade Organization. Questions of food safety have become entangled in issues of fair trade between the two countries.

I’ve raised this question of a trade battle with several people. Most tell me that if this were a trade issue, the Chinese would have used the opportunity to make a political statement. Instead, the Chinese memo was limited in scope, although the financial impact to the Washington shellfish industry could be significant.

Some people are quietly speculating that the Chinese have taken this action to manipulate prices. If geoduck harvesting is shut down in Washington state, the price of wild geoducks from the U.S. will drop and markets will improve for Canadian and Mexican geoducks. I’m told that the Chinese can make more money operating in those countries, although I have been unable to verify that so far.


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Food for thought

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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