Geoduck Dive Fishery Opens; Market Found

Southeast Alaska divers were out fishing for geoducks Thursday, for the first time in about two months.

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Phil Doherty of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association says they decided to move forward with fishing after meeting last week with some processors. He says those processors found markets other than China for the clams.

“We did our PSP sampling on Sunday. We sent the geoducks up to DEC lab on Monday, got the PSP results on Tuesday and of the six areas that we sampled, three of them passed PSP levels, so we were able to fish,” he said.

Geoducks for sale. Photo by Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Geoducks for sale. Photo by Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
PSP, or paralytic shellfish poisoning, is caused by eating shellfish contaminated with certain kinds of algae that produce toxins. It can be deadly, so all commercially harvested shellfish is tested before it can be sold.

SARDFA suspended testing, and therefore fishing, soon after China banned imports of West Coast shellfish in December. Chinese officials claimed they found high toxin and arsenic levels in geoducks from Washington State and from dive areas around Ketchikan. But West Coast officials say they’ve not been given any details or proof from China. That’s led to questions about whether the ban is politically motivated.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had planned a March 3rd diplomatic trip to China, with a goal of solving – or at least obtaining more information about – that country’s ban on West Coast shellfish. But that trip didn’t happen.

With a little pressure from Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, though, NOAA agreed to reschedule the trip, and is sending a delegation to China on March 21.

During a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee meeting with Food and Drug Administration Director Margaret Hamburg, Murkowski stressed the importance of resolving the issue, and asked that the FDA get involved.

“This is an issue that might be very narrow in its scope, but has great impact, in certainly a portion of my state, impacting some family owned businesses that are taking a real hit right now,” she said.

Hamburg responded that her office has been providing information and support to NOAA, and to Chinese officials.

“We are not going to be formally part of the delegation, but we’ll be in contact with them, working with them, and supporting them,” she said. “And we also do have an office in China to provide additional support.”

Doherty says he and state officials will participate in a teleconference with NOAA and Washington State officials and fishermen before the China trip, to provide any information that the delegation needs. He hopes another teleconference will take place soon after that trip. The outcome could determine when and how much divers fish in the near future.

China is the largest market for geoduck clams, but not the only one.

“There are markets over in Vietnam and Hong Kong and Malaysia, and there are some markets in the United States that these geoducks will go to,” he said. “Our processors have done a good job trying to put something together so the fishermen can go out and earn at least a little bit of money here.”

It could be too little, though. Doherty says the price paid in the smaller markets might not make the work worthwhile.

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