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A decision by China is hitting the economy in part of this country. China has barred all shellfish imports from an area stretching from Northern California to Alaska. The State of Washington says its industry is losing as much as $600,000 each week this ban is in effect. Now, among the shellfish not being harvested is the long-necked geoduck clam. It can fetch up to $150 a pound in China and it's a major export for the Pacific Northwest.

From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ashley Ahearn reports.

ASHLEY AHEARN, BYLINE: The Chinese government instituted the ban in early December 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES)

AHEARN: Ninety percent of the geoduck harvested in Washington is sold to China and Hong Kong. And the ban is having real impacts here.

LYDIA SIGO: And, as you can see, we dive right out here in this area that's all just houses. And that's where we get the majority of our pounds is off this tract right here.

AHEARN: Lydia Sigo stands on a dock on the Suquamish Tribe's reservation near Seattle. It's quiet on the water. No boats anywhere to be seen. The tribe is losing $20,000 each day that the ban is in place.

SIGO: So that's been really frustrating because there's about 25 divers in our tribe and that's 25 families that, you know, really need to pay their mortgage or pay their rent. For me, I can't keep going on like this for very long.

AHEARN: To make matters worse, Sigo says, 40 percent of the money the tribal divers get from selling their geoducks goes to support the tribal elders.

SIGO: So this is affecting the entire tribe and other state divers; you know, geoduck farms, people all over the state - it's a huge industry. And we all spend that money in our local economies.

AHEARN: The shellfish industry in Washington is worth $270 million annually and China is the biggest market for exports. This is the broadest shellfish ban the Chinese have 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 10 years over fears related to mad cow disease. More recently, China rejected about half a million tons of U.S. corn because it was genetically modified.

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. Tabitha Mallory is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program.

TABITHA MALLORY: It is possible that it could be a retaliation for something. That has happened in the past.

AHEARN: In 2010, China banned salmon imports from Norway 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.

MALLORY: I think it's good to consider all the possible motivations for this. But I don't think that we should completely write off, you know, the possibility that it is a legitimate accusation.

AHEARN: The contaminated clam was harvested near the former site of a copper smelter in Tacoma which had leached arsenic into the surrounding area. Washington State officials have now closed the area and are testing shellfish for arsenic. Federal officials have sent a letter to China asking for the ban to be lifted.

All of this comes at a particularly bad time. Geoduck is a delicacy in China, with peak demand for the clam around Chinese New Year, which falls this year on January 31.

For NPR News, I'm Ashley Ahearn in Seattle.

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