Don't Dread the Tide

Back in early May, I predicted this summer could be problematic for shellfish buyers due to ominous early warning signs of red tide - a naturally occurring phytoplankton, or algal bloom, that can turn ocean water red when highly concentrated. With multiple closed-off harvesting areas, I argued that sourcing - not consuming - shellfish could get dicey as temperatures rose, and I was mostly right. A devoted and well-educated reader quickly pointed out in our reader feedback section that the New England shellfish supply is indeed safe, regardless of whatever foreboding words I'd shared.

He, too, was right: Considering the respective states' extensive biotoxin monitoring, consumers can trust any New England bivalve (mussels, oysters and clams) on the market this summer to be safe. The key phrase to remember here is "on the market." Those are words a Maine family should have remembered this past holiday weekend, when they consumed mussels they harvested from an area near an abandoned fish pen in Cutler Bay, close to the Canadian border.

The area had been under tight surveillance by the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) all spring and summer because of red tide; this year has been especially active on that front, yet not as bad as 2005. Two adults and an adolescent who ate the contaminated mussels this weekend were hospitalized for paralytic shellfish poisoning, which results in some severe gastrointestinal illnesses and, in rare cases, death.

Because the area has never been closed to shellfish harvesting, the family likely got a bit complacent. Clam digging is a time-honored tradition on the myriad mud flats along the Maine coast, and many licensed diggers are known to feed their families and friends during summer celebrations. And mussels will grow just about anywhere they are hung. However, the last few years have proven that even the digger with the dirtiest knees should pay strict attention to posted closings the DMR went through great pains to identify.

The DMR's monitoring program is solid: After nearly 30 years of no documented red tide illnesses in Maine, there have been two in the past year, and both were caused by shellfish not purchased by a licensed dealer. That's a track record to be proud of and expert voice that must be heeded.

It'd be easy to deduce, with a quick Google news search, that shellfish poisoning is on the rise in New England. Don't believe it. Instead, put your trust in licensed shellfish dealers. Summers just wouldn't be the same without them.


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