Zipped into a full-body dry suit, Joe Williams hardly feels the frigid winter waters around Washington's San Juan Islands. Diving for red sea urchins nestled among sharp crags is exciting, he says, like underwater rock climbing. But the Swinomish Indian would rather harvest geoducks, pronounced "gooey-ducks," giant clams with a bizarre trunk-like protrusion that weigh up to 15 pounds. A delicacy in China, they can fetch $16 a pound, compared to about $1 for a pound of urchins.
Williams switched to urchins because China stopped importing West Coast shellfish in December, after its inspectors found traces of arsenic and paralytic shellfish poisoning in Washington and Alaska geoducks. China imported $68 million in U.S. geoducks alone in 2012 – including 90 percent of Washington's harvest. Some hard-hit divers are tackling less profitable alternatives – sea urchins, sea cucumbers and crab. Other geoduck divers and farmers are selling to Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong and U.S. Chinatowns. At least one Puget Sound tribal company laid off most of its plant workers and divers.
U.S. officials did not detect toxic levels of contamination and are traveling to China in March, hoping to end the ban. Williams, however, couldn't wait: In February, he returned to work at an oil refinery.
Mike Kane is a photographer based in Seattle. Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News.