VIEWPOINT – May 2016 – Maribeth Crandell – Island County Health

Safer Shellfish Harvesting
Maribeth Crandell

Warm weather brings out the sun bathers, sailors and clam diggers. Don’t forget the sunscreen, the life preservers and for clam diggers, call this number 1-800-562-5632. It’s the safe shellfish hotline. Or you can go online to use this clickable map to find out if the beach is safe for shellfish harvesting.

I manage the shellfish program for Island County Public Health and work closely with the State. You’ll find us sharing a booth at the Penn Cove Water Festival on May 14. We use a watershed model with little houses, roads, cars and livestock. Kids help us sprinkle colored powder on the model and then squirt water on it to illustrate that when it rains our car oil, livestock manure, leaky septic systems and fertilizers run off of our roads, yards and fields to the nearest water body. These pollutants will compromise water quality and shellfish safety. Our efforts to pick-up after our pets, inspect our septic systems, manage manure and maintain our vehicles, pays off in water quality.

If you’re interested in digging shellfish to eat make sure you harvest from a safe location. Avoid shoreline communities that have septic systems, storm water outfall pipes, waste water treatment plants and marinas.

The Washington Department of Health has people like me all over Puget Sound collecting water and shellfish samples from designated sites and sending them to a lab for testing. I used to wade out to a certain barnacle encrusted rock to collect a bag of mussels every 2 weeks. Even at low tide the water came up over my rubber boots and nipped at my shorts as I approached. It was one of my favorite work assignments. The samples were tested for biotoxins that can cause Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning and Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. All of these can make you sick, cause permanent damage or even death. You cannot cook or freeze it out of the meat.

Symptoms from these biotoxins vary. One local who’d experienced PSP told me it felt like his teeth were floating. He compared it with going to the dentist and getting a shot of novocaine. His extremities went numb. It can result in difficulty breathing and needs immediate medical attention. Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning can cause permanent short term memory loss, brain damage and even death. Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning, can be embarrassing and very inconvenient, as you can imagine. Heed any signs posted at the beach and check out this website for the latest biotoxin reports from the Department of Health so you “know before you go” .

During a hot spell Vibrio parahaemolyticus can sometimes be found, mostly in oysters. Vibrio can make you sick but it’s easily avoidable. When harvesting shellfish, go in the cool morning hours, ice them immediately and then cook them thoroughly.

Now that you have the hotline number and clickable map, you’re ready to head out for safer shellfish harvesting. If you have any questions about local shellfish call me at 360-678-7914.

As a member for the Whidbey ECO-Net, Education, Communication and Outreach Network, Island County Public Health works collaboratively with several local organizations to protect water quality on Whidbey Island. Visit our webpage to find out about events sponsored by ECO-Net organizations.