Bail out Maine shellfish

The shellfish industry depends on many things - favorable weather, responsible resource management, an eager market and some luck. But most of all, trust: Without it, there is nothing to sell. Trust in the safety of the shellfish supply comes only through careful water-quality monitoring by qualified scientists - paid for by taxpayers, of course.

Such a cost, however, is an investment that yields returns every spring and summer when truckloads of mussels, oysters and clams head to restaurants and seafood markets around the country. An estimated 90 percent of the state's bivalve shellfish catch is consumed outside of Maine. It's a USD 60 million (EUR 44 million) industry vital to the economic health of the state and the U.S. seafood industry as a whole.

However, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has threatened to block the sale of Maine shellfish outside the state if it does not add four shellfish safety monitors to its staff. A total of just nine people to watch about 3,500 miles of coastline seems reasonable. But the state thinks it can get by with three (this after considering cutting off funding for the entire program earlier this year).

State officials face mounting pressure to trim the state budget in a struggling economy, but no cuts should be taken at the expense of an entire industry and the health of consumers everywhere. Adding just four jobs could save hundreds. Seafood safety concerns are heightened enough in the United States - one might argue unnecessarily so - so the matter needs to be resolved soon. Not complying with an FDA mandate (with a June deadline) is a gamble not worth taking.

Maine Gov. John Baldacci is considering consolidating multiple agencies - the state departments of agriculture, conservation, marine resources and inland fisheries and wildlife - into one to trim a few dollars, and is weighing all options. One can appreciate all the various interests a governor or any civic leader must satisfy, but it would be wise for Maine to remain in the good graces of the FDA.

Meanwhile, the threat of red tide looms again this summer. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution warned last month of a "moderately large" chance that the poisonous algal blooms will return to the New England coastline and jeopardize shellfish harvests again. That would be no time to be shorthanded on the first line of defense - it would only leave the shellfish industry and the state shortchanged.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business 

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