Code red for shellfish

New England’s bivalve shellfish industry should brace for the worst. An alert from Maine’s Department of Marine Resources (DMR) this week warned of another onrush of red tide, a naturally occurring algal bloom that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in humans.

“Maine is being ruthlessly battered by red tide this summer, and there is so much, coming so fast, into so many areas, that I can’t even try to predict what we might see from week to week,” Darcie Couture, director of biotoxin monitoring for DMR, said via e-mail on Tuesday. “After only the first couple of days in the lab this week, all I can say is that it doesn’t look good.”

It’s been an unusual season already. Couture’s work, which helps ensure a safe shellfish supply, almost didn’t happen this year. A state budget crisis nearly axed DMR’s shellfish monitoring program, which was saved at the last minute by a federal grant allowing DMR to expand its seasonal workforce. A USD 60 million industry breathed a sigh of relief.

Oddly, three buoys DMR used to collect samples for red tide testing in eastern Maine were either cut loose or stolen earlier this season, making Couture’s job of preventing PSP even tougher.

And then the rain came. Over the last 24 days of June, 21 saw rain. More than 8 inches of wet stuff fell — and the rain has continued into July, with nearly 3 inches falling in just the last couple of days. Basements are flooded everywhere, mine included, and crops are at risk.

All the rain is making the red tide threat worse by the day. Toxin levels in mussels sampled from western Maine scored at 4,000 micrograms this week; a level of 80 micrograms is enough to warrant a closure. Red tide is impacting the harvest of mussels, mahogany clams and softshell clams the hardest. European oysters are also closed to harvesting, but farmed Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) are safe for the moment because most are raised upriver and are somewhat sheltered, Couture told me yesterday.

Unfortunately, the severity of red tide this summer, Couture added, is on pace to be worse than in 2005, when New England’s shellfish harvesting was virtually shut down. The red tide phytoplankton, Alexandrium fundyense, feeds on the nutrients from storm runoff along the shore.

What’s troubling is that Couture says red tide has not yet reached its peak. Anyone who remembers the summer of 2005, which is widely considered the worst red tide outbreak ever, understands how bad this situation can get.

What we all should remember is that the shellfish supply is still safe, thanks to folks like Couture on the front lines.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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