Whidbey News-Times


Be safe when harvesting shellfish

May 7, 2014 · Updated 6:54 PM


For the Whidbey News-Times

If you’re planning to enjoy shellfish gathered from the intertidal zones of Puget Sound, it’s important to take precautions.

Sometimes this beach banquet is yummy and good for you, and sometimes it can make you sick, or worse.

To prevent shellfish-related illness, including Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, or PSP, call the Safe Shellfish Hotline before you dig at 1-800-562-5632. Online, view a clickable map at www.doh.wa.gov/shellfishsafety.htm.

For the latest biotoxin bulletin including PSP reports visit www4.doh.wa.gov/gis/mogifs/biotoxin.htm.

Symptoms of PSP, which can start appearing within 30 minutes of consuming tainted seafood, include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cramps, burning lips, mouth, tongue and toes, shortness of breath and a choking feeling.

In addition to PSP, other toxins include Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning, Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, which may cause permanent short-term memory loss, brain damage or even death.

These toxins cannot be “cooked out” or “frozen out” of the seafood items.

In the heat of summer some shellfish can be affected by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a naturally occurring bacterium that can cause vomiting, diarrhea and cramps. Vibrio can be avoided by icing the shellfish immediately after harvesting and then cooking them thoroughly.

If you’re boiling the shellfish, wait for the shells to open and then cook 3-5 minutes longer. If steaming, let them steam an additional eight or nine minutes after the shells open.

Tainted oysters are most likely to result in Vibrio illness.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations say oysters must be shucked on the beach. The Food and Drug Administration suggests boiling shucked oysters for three minutes, frying them for 10 minutes in 375 degree oil, or baking them for 10 minutes in a 450 degree oven.

Keep the cooked shellfish separate from seawater and uncooked shellfish to prevent recontamination.

Location is a big part of safer shellfish suppers. Some beaches are off limits year-round. You don’t want to harvest shellfish next to a storm water outfall pipe, a wastewater treatment plant or a marina.

Shellfish are filter feeders and collect all that stuff going overboard, like paint, solvents, gas, oil and human waste, and they hold on to it for weeks.

The clickable map on the State Department of Health website shows all the recreational shellfish areas. Colors, like a stoplight, indicate the safest places to dig.

Oak Harbor, Langley and Coupeville all have marinas, wastewater treatment plants and stormwater outfall pipes, so that’s a no-go for shellfish harvesting.

Beach-front communities with a lot of homes right on the water are not a good place to dig clams.

At the west end of Penn Cove, the map is yellow for “conditional.” There are times when it’s not safe, after a heavy rain, for example, or if something happens at the wastewater treatment plant in Coupeville or Monroe Landing.

Commercial shellfish growers are required to test their shellfish regularly, so if you buy them you are assured they’re safe to eat.

Do not harvest near the pier in Coupeville and at Monroe Landing, where beaches are posted in red.

Freeland County Park is closed because water samples show fecal contamination.

Residents are doing admirable caring for septic systems and cleaning up after their pets, but contaminants are still held seasonally by the wrack of seaweed on the beach.

Check for signs at the beach that will alert the public to any changes.

The green shoreline on the map, where it’s safe to harvest shellfish, starts east of Coupeville along Saratoga Passage, runs south and turns north up the west side of Whidbey Island to Mutiny Bay — except in the towns and near beach front communities.

The west side of Camano Island, from Madrona Beach to Camano Head, is also green.

Other restrictions are in place to protect the shellfish populations to ensure there will be shellfish for the next, roughly, 10,000 years.

Maribeth Crandall is environmental health specialist for Island County Public Health.


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