Red Tide Hits Puget Sound Shellfish

The worst outbreak of red tide in years has hit Puget Sound. The shellfish industry is suffering, and public health officials have expanded beach closures. Ruby DeLuna of member station KUOW reports.

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Clam diggers in Washington state are keeping their socks on this summer. Health officials have banned shellfish harvesting along the shoreline of Puget Sound because of high levels of marine biotoxins. It's the worst so-called red tide in years. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Ruby DeLuna reports.

RUBY DELUNA reporting:

In the 20-some years of his career, Frank Cox has never seen biotoxin levels this high. Cox keeps a watchful eye on marine biotoxins for the state department of Health. He thinks this current algae bloom is related to this summer's high temperature.

Mr. FRANK COS (Washington State Department of Health): My belief is that the weather that we're having has produced just about ideal conditions for the Alexandrium algae to grow, and many sites in Puget Sound are extremely toxic right now.

DELUNA: Cox says Alexandrium algae produces toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. This type of algae is food for plankton that shellfish feed on. The toxins don't harm shellfish, but they do affect humans and can be fatal.

This summer has been unusually warm. Combine that with calm air and no rain, the algae grows rapidly. Those same weather conditions are perfect for clam digging, a popular activity in Washington State. But not this season.

(Soundbite of ocean)

Beaches along Puget Sound are closed because of the red tide. There are signs warning people about the dangers of shellfish poisoning.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

Unidentified Man: I got a coco prawns coming up.

DELUNA: At Salty's on Alki, a seafood restaurant on Alki Beach in West Seattle, business remains brisk. Restaurant manager Mary Davis says the beach closures haven't dampened people's appetite for scallops, clams and mussels.

Ms. MARY DAVIS (Salty's on Alki): They are popular. It's northwest fare, and people in Seattle and people that come to Seattle, clams and mussels are a big part of what we do here and what we serve in Seattle.

DELUNA: Restaurants get their shellfish from commercial growers. So far the beach closures haven't affected large shellfish farms. Even so, growers like Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish are wary.

Mr. BILL DEWEY (Shellfish Grower, Taylor Shellfish): We really want to reassure shellfish consumers that the industry is committed to providing a safe and wholesome product and abiding by the regulations as far as red tide and doing all the monitoring that's required. You know, we work hard to provide a safe product, and occasionally Mother Nature throws us a loop here.

DELUNA: Just before the current red tide, the industry was already reeling from a Vibrio bacteria outbreak last month. More than a hundred people became ill after eating contaminated oysters. Local supermarkets and restaurants had to pull raw oysters off the menu. Grower Dewey says the Vibrio closure cost his company %150,000 a week in live oyster sales.

One thing is certain. Both the Vibrio and algae outbreaks are weather-driven, and until temperatures return to normal, scientists will continue to test shellfish for toxin levels. For NPR News, I'm Ruby DeLuna in Seattle.

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