Red Tide Cripples New England Shellfishing

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For the first time in 30 years, the toxic algae bloom known as red tide has shut down shellfish beds from Maine to Cape Cod. Red tide is an annual phenomenon in Maine, but it's rapidly spreading along the coast of southern Massachusetts. And the shellfish scarcity has the region's restaurants scrambling.


For the first time in 30 years, the toxic algae bloom known as red tide has caused marine officials to shut down shellfish beds from Maine to Cape Cod. This algae bloom is an annual phenomenon in Maine, but it's rapidly spreading now along the coast of southern Massachusetts. The quarantine on shellfish has the region's restaurants scrambling. From member station WBUR, Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Shellfish on the New England coast equals summertime. Just ask Brian Flagg, chef and oyster connoisseur.

(Soundbite of restaurant noise)

Mr. BRIAN FLAGG (Chef): Give it a little shake. Give it a little slurp. Just take it right down.

(Soundbite of slurping noise)

CORNISH: Flagg can talk you through the delicacies of half a dozen different kinds of oysters at the raw bar of Jasper White's Summer Shack Restaurant in Cambridge.

(Soundbite of shucking noise)

CORNISH: The shuckers here split open the rocky-backed oyster shells to reveal pearly shivering mussels from the Malpeques of Prince Edward Island, to the Kumamotos out of the California coast. But oysters from Duxbury, just a few hours away, are off the menu.

(Soundbite of restaurant noise)

Mr. FLAGG: And we have a lot of working relationships with fishermen, and we like to keep those ongoing. But some of the people that we deal with constantly we have to put those relationships aside until the red tide is gone.

CORNISH: Red tide is sidelining shellfishers and aquaculture farmers at the kickoff of the summer season. It's a naturally occurring sea algae, toxic to humans, whose annual bloom has seeped down from the coast of Maine. Filter feeders like scallops, mussels, clams and oysters can become saturated with it. Though it doesn't' kill the shellfish, it can cause illness and even death in the humans who eat them. Rainstorms and strong winds from the northeast have spread the algae bloom deep into the waters of southern Massachusetts, where it has not been seen at high levels since the 1970s.

(Soundbite of shellfish being poured out)

CORNISH: And for oyster farmer Skip Bennett it means his cash crop is sitting at the bottom of Duxbury Bay unsold. The shellfish bed here and in other coastal areas just south of Boston have been shut down till the red tide passes. For wild harvesters, who can pull up to $400 a day in catch, every high tide is lost money. Bennett says they're also worried of losing business to imports.

Mr. SKIP BENNETT (Oyster Farmer): It's the first time since we started this business that we've had to say `no.' Even in the winter we come out. We'll drive on the ice and we cut through with chain saws. Two years ago, it was that bad. But we still didn't miss orders. So this is a whole new thing for us to have to tell people `We're sorry, we can't take care of you.'

(Soundbite of music playing)

CORNISH: And back on shore, Duxbury's annual Opening of the Bay celebration just isn't the same without the locally found clams, littlenecks, steamers and oysters that signify the return of summer. Art Hogan says he'll miss digging for his own clams along the beach.

Mr. ART HOGAN (Clam Digger): It's like a bear coming out of hibernation. You finally get to have some fresh seafood and go to a raw bar or two. So, yeah, it's definitely a big part of the season. It's very, very disappointing.

CORNISH: There's no word yet on when the bay will reopen, but marine biologists say the red tide could last another month or more. They say the silver lining is that often the shellfish grow bigger and healthier after the algae passes.

For NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish in Boston.

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