Biotoxins shut down shellfish harvesting in North Whatcom

Published on Wed, Jun 18, 2014
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Recreational shellfish harvesting has been suspended at all North Whatcom beaches after the Whatcom County Health Department discovered unsafe levels of biotoxins in the seafood.

In a press release on June 11, the health departmeant revealed that unsafe levels of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning biotoxin, or DSP, had been discovered in molluscan shellfish in Whatcom County. 

As of June 11, beaches in Whatcom County from Point Whitehorn to the Canadian border have been closed for all forms of shellfish harvesting until the department of health can further investigate the cause of the biotoxin. Areas south and east of Sandy Point up to the Whatcom County line have been approved for butter and varnish clams only.

This latest closure comes on the heels of another shellfish harvest closure for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), which shut down shellfish harvesting in Birch Bay from Point Whitehorn to Birch Point starting May 21.“DSP is a relatively new biotoxin in Washington state,” said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for the department of health. “It was not detected here at all prior to 2011, when we had some illnesses in Jefferson County, which prompted the state to monitor for it.”

The DSP biotoxin is usually found in eastern waters near Europe, and were likely introduced here by ships transporting from those areas. 

Clams, oysters, scallops and particularly mussels are all potential carriers of DSP, which can cause nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain in humans. Crabmeat is not affected by the biotoxin, but “crab butter,” the yellow mush secreted from the crab’s digestive glands, can carry DSP and should be discarded.Shellfish sold in restaurants and markets have been thoroughly tested by the health department and remain safe to eat. Cooking or freezing the meat cannot destroy DSP or PSP biotoxins. 

Some clams, like butter and varnish clams, can retain toxins for up to a year, and should be eaten with caution. The algae that contains the biotoxin can’t be seen and need to be tested for in a laboratory.  

Kunesh couldn’t say when exactly the harvest closures would be over. 

“Frankly, that’s up to mother nature,” Kunesh said. “Our experience in the last few years is that closures that begin in late spring or early summer usually last throughout the summer. We’ll get a little reprieve between August and October but we’ll usually have another algal bloom by October.”

“It’s different every year, but it’s been pretty consistent the last few years,” Kunesh added. 

For more information, including updates on beach closures, visit the Washington Department of Health’s website at doh.wa.gov/eho/sf/biotoxin.htm  or call the biotoxin hotline at 1-800-562-5632.