Shellfish tasty but also potentially toxic, health experts warn

Labor Day Weekend recreational shellfish harvesters should follow the Three C’s: check, chill and thoroughly cook shellfish to avoid potential poisoning, state and local health experts warn.

Additionally, many beaches on Whidbey’s western shores remain closed to shellfish seekers because of a potentially fatal biotoxin.

The combination of hot weather, low tides and little rain have contributed to more than 10 reports of vibriosis illnesses from people who ate raw or under cooked oysters they collected themselves, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria is found naturally in the environment and thrives in warm temperatures.

No reports of vibriosis poisoning have been received in Island County, said Dr. Brad Thomas, county health officer.

“The shellfish industry follows special control measures during the summer months to keep people who choose to eat raw oysters from getting sick,” said Rick Porso, director of the state Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

“For those who enjoy collecting and consuming their own shellfish, it’s important that they follow a few simple measures to stay healthy,” he said.

Shellfish should be cooked at 145 degrees for 15 seconds to destroy the vibirosis bacteria.

Vibriosis symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills.

The illness is usually mild or moderate and runs its course in two to three days.

People are urged to tell health officers if they suspect vibriosis so others can be warned.

Harvesters also need to heed warnings to stay off of closed beaches on the island’s west side because of another toxin that is potentially fatal to humans.

The west side of Whidbey from Bush Point to Deception Pass remains closed because a second round of testing again found shellfish positive for Paralytic Shellfish Poison known as PSP, said Maribeth Crandell, BEACH, Swim and Shellfish Program Coordinator with Island County Public Health.

The second round of laboratory tests from samples taken at Lagoon Point found higher levels of PSP than the initial tests, Crandell said.

“PSP is a life-threatening illness, so if anyone suspects they’ve been affected, they should go immediately to the hospital,” she warned.

“Unlike vibriosis which can make you sick but probably won’t kill you, biotoxins like PSP cannot be frozen or cooked out of the shellfish.”

The beaches will remain closed to harvesting until two consecutive samples taken 7-10 days apart show results within the state’s safe standards.

Whidbey’s most popular beaches for clam digging and other shellfish harvesting are on the east side, such as Penn Cove, and they remain open.

A reminder: Whidbey’s crabbing season closes Monday, Sept. 4.

Shellfish Tips: Before heading to the beach, people should check the DOH Shellfish Safety Map to determine if any areas are closed. Shellfish gathered from open and approved areas should be harvested as the tide goes out, chilled as soon as possible, and cooked at 145 degrees for 15 seconds to destroy vibirosis bacteria.