China Epidemic Damaging Tribal Shellfish Exports

OLYMPIA (May 30, 2003) — Tribal shellfish harvesters across western Washington have been reporting drastic drops in orders due to the continuing Severe Acute Repertory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China. “Geoducks are eaten in restaurants in China, but now because of SARS, it seems like no one even wants to go out in public,” said Dave Winfrey, shellfish biologist with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. Most of the geoducks harvested in Washington are eventually sold in overseas markets, such as China.

“We have geoduck fishermen going out for half days, filling 500 pound orders when they are used to filling orders four times that size,” said Winfrey. “The geoducks themselves are safe; there just isn”t a market right now. This is a huge blow not only the individual harvesters, but to their families and entire tribal communities.”

Since the early 1970s geoduck has been a delicacy in China and other Far East markets, drawing much of the harvest from western Washington waters. “Eating geoduck in China is a special night out and right now people aren’t going out to dinner in China,” said Winfrey. “We have been hoping that the epidemic is on a downward trend, but we really have very litter idea when that is going to happen. Hopefully, tribal harvesters will be able to ride this out.”

“The government in China has been telling people to avoid large groups and you are certainly in a large group eating out,” said Tom Hays, a shellfish marketer for Taylor Shellfish United. “So, right now the price is soft and the demand is down.” Also, because visits to the United States from Asia have been slumping, the domestic market has seen a decrease in geoduck sales. “Less people are coming over here from Asia and aren’t coming over here to eat geoducks,” he said.

In more typical times, tribal geoduck harvesters transfer their catch to buyers at the docks almost immediately after coming off the water. A majority of those geoducks are then trucked directly to an airport and flown overseas in a matter of hours. “The market in Asia calls for fresh, whole geoduck,” said Winfrey. “There is very little time between the sandy sea bottom and the end consumer.”

Currently, tribal harvesters are doing all they can to fill as many domestic orders as possible, but those only make up a small portion of the market, said Winfrey. “Most of the geoducks taken out of the Puget Sound go to China; if people aren’t eating them there, they aren’t getting eaten.”

In addition to decreases in the more illustrious geoduck market, exports of manila clams have also been affected. “China and Hong Kong have been huge markets for manila clams,” said Ian Child, shellfish biologist with the Squaxin Island Tribe. “For the past six weeks, there has been nowhere to sell manila clams.” There has been a slight increase in exports to Spain, he said, but overall orders have been down more than 50 percent.

Since the Rafeedie decision, which reaffirmed treaty tribes’ rights to harvest shellfish, and with the decline in salmon stocks, shellfish has become an ever more important part of tribal economies. “We have always depended on shellfish to sustain us. Shellfish have always been a part of our economy and our culture,” said Henry John, shellfish director for the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. “The shellfish harvest is where a lot of tribal members make ends come together.”

For more information, contact: Dave Winfrey, shellfish biologist, Puyallup Tribe of Indians, (253) 573-7933. Ian Child, shellfish biologist, Squaxin Island Tribe, (360) 432-3811. Scott Chitwood, fisheries manager, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, 681-4616. Emmett O’Connell, information officer, NWIFC, (360) 438-1181, ext. 392, [email protected]

Photos available: Photos of a recent geoduck harvest near Tacoma can be e-mailed at high resolution. Contact Emmett O’Connell at above number.