BC’s Wild Seafood Exports Caught in Beijing’s COVID-19 Panic

June 18, 2020 Updated: June 18, 2020

A false alarm linking salmon and COVID-19 in China is creating a serious ripple effect for B.C.’s seafood industry.

On June 14, state-run newspapers in China reported an unconfirmed hypothesis that a fresh COVID-19 outbreak in Beijing’s Xinfadi market could be traced to a cutting board used for imported salmon.

Although China’s Centre for Disease Control (CCDC) and Prevention exonerated imported salmon Tuesday, saying no traces of COVID-19 were found on the packaged fish before it arrived in Beijing, a series of far-reaching implications had already been set in motion.

First, China halted all of its European salmon imports. Then certain wild seafood exporters from B.C. were asked to stop exporting their product to China as well.

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Medical staff members in full protective gear stand outside the Guangan sports centre to assist people who live near or who have visited the Xinfadi Market, a wholesale food market where a new COVID-19 cluster has emerged, for testing in Beijing on June 16, 2020. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

“There’s serious implications for all kinds of seafood being exported to China,” said Christina Burridge, executive director for B.C. Seafood Alliance.

Burridge said wild seafood like sea cucumbers, spot prawns, geoducks, and dungeness crabs are products with significant markets in Asia.

“These products don’t have a large domestic market, with 95 percent of it exported to markets in China and other Asian countries,” said Burridge.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada statistics, Canada’s fish and seafood exports to China were valued at $1.17 billion in 2019. B.C. was one of the top seafood exporting provinces, with exports valued at $306 million.

Wild seafood products such as crab and geoduck accounted for $324 million and $94 million in Canadian exports to China, compared to salmon exports valued at $60 million. Canada’s major salmon market is the United States.

Burridge also said she has been hearing reports that Chinese authorities are demanding all seafood be cooked before export. That would be a challenge since most Canadian seafood is sought live.

The World Health Organization stated COVID-19 is not transmitted through fish and the origins of the new cluster in Beijing is still uncertain. However China halted all salmon imports from Europe after genetic traces of the virus found in Beijing suggested it could have come from Europe. Supermarkets in Beijing also removed salmon from their shelves.

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A worker cleans glass in the seafood section of a supermarket in Beijing, China, on June 17, 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images)

The Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance (CAIA) stated Canadian seafood continues to be among the “healthiest foods” consumers can choose. Timothy Kennedy, President and CEO of CAIA , said that there have been no restrictions on Canadian farmed salmon imports so far and that the supply still continues. But he added China has increased its product testings and that is slowing down the process of getting product into the country.

“China has high trust in CAIA.” said Kennedy, who added that there was no reason to worry since none of the aquaculture farms in Canada reported any cases.

By Binny Paul, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Campbell River Mirror