Red Tide Returns to Northeastern Shellfish Area

Shellfish beds are closed to harvesters from Maine to Cape Cod, the result of a toxic "red tide" algae bloom. The ban on clamming and other shell-fishing for the second year in a row comes as the summer season starts.

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Almost all shellfishing from Southern Maine to Cape Cod has been shut down because of an outbreak of the toxic algae known as red tide. That means no digging for clams or oysters because eating contaminated shellfish can be deadly. Last year, an historic outbreak of red tide nearly crippled the shellfishing industry.

Monica Brady-Myerov of member station WBUR in Boston checks in on the industry this year.

Mr. DAVE SARGENT (Shellfish Constable): My name is Dave Sargent and I'm the shellfish constable for the city of Gloucester.

MONICA BRADY-MYEROV reporting:

Dave Sargent climbs into his orange pick up truck to patrol shellfish beds and post red tide warnings at dozens of locations around Gloucester, a city north of Boston. The red tide doesn't harm shellfish, but it does make them toxic to humans. Last year red tide shut down the shellfishing industry for eight weeks at the height of the season. Gloucester shellfish warden Sargent says no one saw it coming.

Mr. SARGENT: Last year was devastating because people didn't expect it and it blindsided them. This year I've been warning people that it's likely and so people hopefully have been saving money, you know, to be able to deal with it.

BRADY-MYEROV: Many harvesters took land based jobs or turned to another catch, like lobster, which is not affected by red tide. The closure cost the industry in Massachusetts an estimated 3 million dollars a week. It's been hard to recover, says Sargent.

Mr. SARGENT: People's confidence in shellfish at restaurants and at the market isn't as strong as it once was. Shellfish dealers are worried, or were worried that there was going to be another red tide outbreak so they were buying product so they could freeze it and then sell it in case there was a red tide. And there is.

BRADY-MYEROV: Sargent parks his truck and walks over a muddy marsh to check on a harvester.

Mr. SARGENT: There's a red tide quota, Scott.

Mr. SCOTT ALEXANDER (Commercial Shellfish Harvester): Already?

BRADY-MYEROV: Scott Alexander is one of Gloucester's 90 commercial harvesters. Since he can't dig for clams he's found another catch.

Mr. ALEXANDER: These are sea worms. These are for bait shops.

BRADY-MYEROV: Were you worried about red tide?

Mr. ALEXANDER: Well, not really, but we didn't want to see it, you know. I mean, there's always something to do around the water, but you just, you wish you didn't get it. It's the second year in a row, so it really hurts the businesses around the restaurants and stuff.

BRADY-MYEROV: One of the many shellfish businesses affected by red tide is Well Fleet Shellfish on Cape Cod. Operations Manager Liz White says the company sells 75,000 Well Fleet clams a week to restaurants all over the country.

Ms. LIZ WHITE (Well Fleet Shellfish): And when we don't have it, we don't sell them. We sell them fresh. We don't freeze anything.

BRADY-MYEROV: Last year the company shut down for three weeks because of red tide.

Ms. WHITE: It's just something that we know is there, but we pretend it's not because it's our livelihood and if we don't have this it's kind of a scramble to find something else.

BRADY-MYEROV: But maybe they should be looking for something else to sell. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist Dennis McGillicuddy says red tide blooms are likely to become more frequent in Massachusetts.

Mr. DENNIS MCGILLICUDDY (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution): I think this is a regional phenomenon that's here to stay. Its manifestations up and down the coast will fluctuate from year to year due to the physical oceanography and the population dynamics of the organism. But it's been here for a long time and I expect it will continue to be here.

BRADY-MYEROV: The beds will be closed until scientific tests determine the red tide danger has passed.

For NPR News, I'm Monica Brady-Myerov in Boston.

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