Keeping An Eye on the Rising Tide
Anyone buying or selling shellfish surely remembers the summer of 2005, when red tide outbreaks hampered sales and crippled harvesters and other small businesses along the New England coast. A summer without fried clams and steamers is nothing I want to endure. But that just may be the case this year, as there are indications that the dreaded algae blooms will once again cause problems for shellfish sourcing.
Phytoplankton, or algae, can concentrate into blooms so dense they dye the ocean surface red, hence red tide. The algae are filtered through the flesh of bivalves like mussels, clams and oysters (lobsters and crabs are not affected), and while the toxins are harmless to the shellfish, they can induce paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, resulting in gastrointestinal illnesses and, in rare cases, death. A vigilant team of shellfish inspectors like we have here in Maine is the best line of defense. And they'll be kept on their toes this summer.
Darcie Couture, director of biotoxin monitoring for the Maine Department of Marine Resources, told me on Friday that data from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution revealed that cyst beds of red tide algae (Alexandrium fundyens) off the New England coast are huge, an indicator of the intensity of future blooms. Already, there have been isolated mussel closures off the Maine coast, the earliest closures Couture can recall.
"Everyone's kind of on edge and waiting," she says, adding that she'll be monitoring upcoming wind patterns, which are chiefly responsible for spreading red tide close to shore. "If we have a northeast blow in the next week or two, we'll be clobbered."
That would be bad news for not only clam diggers and oyster farmers, but for seafood buyers and a hospitality/tourism industry praying for a summer of plentiful seafood supplies to help mitigate the effects of a struggling economy. Will we see a repeat of 2005, when the industry sustained losses estimated at $50 million?
According to Couture, the answer is blowing in the wind.