KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski questioned this week whether the Chinese ban on shellfish from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest might be about more than safety.
"Yes, it's a concern about safety," the senator said while visiting Ketchikan on Thursday. "But it does cause you to wonder if there are other issues that are at play here with China, and how appropriate levels of intervention might be."
Murkowski said it's important the federal government follow through on the issue, noting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is sending a delegation to China in the coming weeks to discuss the ban and shellfish harvesting in the United States, The Ketchikan Daily News reported.
China banned the import of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops from Alaska and the Pacific Northwest in December. The Chinese government said it discovered paralytic shellfish poisoning in geoducks harvested in the Middle Gravina Island area of southeast Alaska and high levels of arsenic in geoducks from Puget Sound in Washington state.
The Middle Gravina Island harvest area is a stretch of about 2 miles on the west side of Gravina Island. Other Gravina Island geoduck-harvest areas include Vallenar Bay, Nehenta Bay and South Gravina, with each area sharing similar harvest quotas.
Earlier this month, federal officials requested the Chinese ban on shellfish imports from the U.S. be limited to two harvest areas — one in southeast Alaska and the other outside of Seattle.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association received word this week that the ban wouldn't be narrowed to specific areas, board President Jeremy Leighton said.
Murkowski met with members of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association while in Ketchikan.
Because China is the largest consumer of geoduck, eating 90 percent of the world's supply, divers have been stuck on shore for the past seven weeks, Leighton said.
Technically, the divers can fish for geoduck. But the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation requested activity be put on hold while the situation with China is resolved and Ketchikan divers have complied, Leighton said.
Despite the ban, Leighton said the association's outlook has lifted after Murkowski's visit.
"(We're) really hopeful," Leighton said. "This is the first real politician, or someone higher up in the government, that we've been able to reach. I'm guessing here in the next week we'll start getting some feedback."
Meanwhile, Washington state's shellfish seems to be weathering the Chinese ban, with exports of geoducks being shipped to Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, http://www.ketchikandailynews.com