With Katama Bay closed for business because of Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), Edgartown oyster farmers Tuesday pressed for a speedy resolution to an investigation and testing regimen under way before a delegation of high-ranking state officials Tuesday.
At a shellfish committee meeting that day, farmers discussed sticking together and going to extra lengths to guard against future closures.
The state Department of Public Health and Department of Fish and Game, Division of Marine Fisheries closed Katama Bay on Sept. 9 after two people were sickened by oysters that came from the bay. The closure is indefinite, but estimated by state officials at a minimum of four weeks. Oysters harvested from the bay between August 1 and Sept. 9 were subject to a recall.
Tuesday’s meeting, attended by about 40 people, included shellfish constables and biologists, health agents, fish dealers and state legislators, in addition to about 10 out of 12 oyster farmers who run independent oyster operations on Katama Bay.
Vibrio is a naturally occurring bacterial pathogen that is more abundant in warm temperatures. When ingested, it can cause acute intestinal illness, fever and chills. Severe disease is rare and is more common for people with weakened immune systems.
Suzanne Condon, director of the bureau of environmental health for the DPH, told the group that over the summer the state DPH has investigated nine Vp cases with some relationship to Katama Bay. In several of those cases the illnesses were potentially linked to abuse at the retail level or were tied to multiple growing areas.
Two cases were directly tied to Katama Bay, she said. The first case was an oyster eaten by someone from out of state at the Port Hunter restaurant on July 6. The oyster was harvested July 2 or July 3 and came from Menemsha Fish House, Honeysuckle Farm or Sweet Neck Farm, a state report found.
The second case was a Massachusetts resident who ate an oyster at Nancy’s Restaurant on August 1. The oyster was harvested July 31 and the state listed it as coming from Sweet Neck Farm.
But Jack Blake, the owner of Sweet Neck Farm, questioned how the state knew the oyster came from his farm. He said that he visited Nancy’s around the listed dates and saw that they were serving other oysters as well that did not come from his farm. Oak Bluffs board of health member Patricia Bergeron concurred during the meeting, saying that Nancy’s had tags from more than one oyster farm. Nancy’s owner Doug Abdelnour told the Gazette that he serves oysters from around the country as well as those from Sweet Neck. Mr. Blake said Tuesday he would follow up with the state to see if there was a discrepancy. Ms. Condon told the Gazette in an email that she checked with the staff who did inspections, and while the restaurant did have tags from other oysters, “the delivery dates didn’t
match the consumption dates.” She said either a small amount was purchased that would have been consumed before the date the person got sick, or the deliveries were after that date. “Hence the Sweet Neck oysters were the ones consumed by the second case,” she said.
At the meeting Tuesday, Ms. Condon said a review of water temperature data from the early July case showed the water was around 75 degrees. In the second case, the water temperature was 78 or 79 degrees.
Right now the water is 67 or 68 degrees. “That’s a good sign,” she said, noting that a review of water temperature for certain harvest dates and other information will be important going forward. “A lot of this might tell us if at a certain water temperature maybe we ought not to harvest on a certain day or couple of days.”
Ms. Condon stressed that the decision to close the growing area was not made lightly. She said warming waters have led to increased Vp outbreaks around the East Coast. Growing areas in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Virginia have been closed this year, and Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth bay were closed August 30. In Massachusetts, there were 50 reported cases of Vp from May 24 to August 30 of this year.
Ms. Condon and many in attendance were focused on the timeline and process for reopening the bay. The criteria, which are set by the International Shellfish Sanitation Conference, include going at least two weeks after the closure date with no additional reported Vp cases, a review of water temperature to show that the temperature is going down, and test samples from the lease sites that are implicated in the cases. Three test sets of weekly samples of 12 oysters are performed, and the state will be sending some samples to a lab in New York.
There were questions, and a degree of uncertainty, about the science behind Vp and how it occurs in oysters. Senior shellfish biologist Tom Shields said chilling oysters to the recommended 50 degrees stops the Vibrio from growing, but doesn’t actually kill the bacteria. Lower temperatures are necessary to do that, he said, and the oysters may need time to filter the bacteria.
Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group director Rick Karney asked whether rainfall could be a factor, noting that this summer was cooler than previous summers but was a rainy season, which can lead to organic material washing into the water.
Ms. Condon said he had raised a good point and that her agency was investigating the possibility.
The bacteria is killed when oysters are cooked. State Sen. Dan Wolf asked whether recalled oysters could be designated for cooking only so farmers could recoup some of their losses.
But Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said oysters restricted for cooking are worth two or three times less than oysters that can be eaten raw.
The closure comes during high season for oysters, several farmers said, when they can get the most money for their product. There were other concerns: because oysters are not being sold, seed waiting in upwellers cannot be moved into empty oyster cages. In very cold temperatures, oyster seed cannot be exposed to the air.
And the oysters keep growing in their saltwater bay nurseries. Once they get too big, they cannot be sold on the half shell.
Jeremy Scheffer and Nic Turner, two young oyster farmers who come from fishing families, underscored the business threat.
Mr. Scheffer said once Katama oysters are taken off a menu, a restaurant might go elsewhere.
Mr. Turner agreed. “I’m a farm owner and I would really appreciate as quickly as possible to get those samples tested,” he said. “We’re already one week into this closure, and if we’re depending on the three week sampling schedule then every day really helps.”
State Rep. Timothy Madden expressed a resolve to get to the bottom of things.
“What I hope we can do is continue this dialogue,” he said.”We hate being here on a day like today with such news. This is a day you’re supposed to be sailing or visiting a hatchery and looking at all the positive things . . . luckily there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and we’ll try to get though as quickly as possible.”
At the shellfish meeting later Tuesday, several oyster farmers expressed concern that the testing would be done quickly.
“It’s a really new phenomenon in terms of public health,” Mr. Bagnall said, noting that there are few years of data to draw from.
The committee briefly discussed creating an Island organization of oyster farmers, and having a Vp safety seminar.
“We need to go beyond what they’re recommending for us to do,” Mr. Scheffer said, an idea that Mr. Blake and others concurred with. “We can dance right on the line the whole time and the same thing can happen. I want to give . . . zero per cent likelihood that it came from us.” “Why not just be ahead of it,” Mr. Scheffer said, suggesting that the oysters could be put in an ice slurry. “Why wait until we get shut down again.”