As I joined the line waiting to enter the meeting room, I greeted and joked with some of the oyster growers in a manner customary among close friends. Like old friends coming together at a funeral, our jolly small talk denied the seriousness of the occasion. The lightness of the moment dimmed with the sunshine as we entered the crowded room. My attempt to joke with the woman taking names at the door fell upon deaf ears and was clearly inappropriate. She was with the state Rapid Response Employment Service taking names of growers who might need economic assistance.

Dearly beloved, we were gathering at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for a meeting organized by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and Division of Marine Fisheries to discuss the shutdown of the Katama Bay oyster farms following reports of two people sickened with vibrio bacteria after eating raw oysters from Katama Bay.

Katama Bay oyster growers filled the chairs in the center of the room. This meeting was, after all, about them. Their livelihoods were on the line. From my vantage point on the side of the room, I had a clear view of the assembled growers. I recognized a handful of the growers as part of the original 15 fishermen who took part in the Martha’s Vineyard Private Aquaculture Initiative, a federally-funded training program we conducted in 1995-97. There were also many new faces in the group. The success of some of the original Martha’s Vineyard oyster growers had spawned an industry, and a valuable one at that. There are now a dozen growers in Katama Bay. Last year they grew and sold about five million oysters valued at over $1 million! The commercial value of their crop now exceeds the value of the annual commercial harvest of bivalve shellfish from all public beds in Edgartown. Quite a feat indeed, especially if one considers that all these oysters are grown on 12 acres of leased bottom covering only one per cent of the area of Katama Bay. This very Vineyard group of growers was here to get the facts about the bacteria and regulatory process that shut them down. More important, they wanted to know what needed to done to get them back to working their farms and how soon that could happen.

In contrast to the growers, the folks with the answers came from the mainland. As further evidence of the gravity of the situation, some were even dressed in suits and ties. A rare sight on the Island that I, for one, associate with weddings, religion salesmen, and to further reinforce my vision of the situation, funerals. In addition to personnel from public health and marine fisheries, state Sen. Dan Wolf and Rep. Timothy Madden were on hand to offer their condolences and support. No doubt the shutdown of such a valuable segment of the Island economy demanded their attention and attendance.

The PowerPoint presentation by public health officials was informative and for the most part professional. Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), the offending pathogen, is a naturally-occurring bacteria in coastal waters. As with most bacteria, its numbers tend to increase in warm water especially at temperatures of 80 degrees Fahrenheit and above. When ingested in sufficient numbers, it can cause gastrointestinal distress within 24 hours. In most cases the illness is self-limiting within three days. On rare occasions, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems, it can result in a blood infection requiring hospitalization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which began tracking in 2007, about 4,500 Vp cases occur each year in the U.S. In recent years, the reported cases of Vp have been increasing. One wonders if this is due to improved tracking, a function of increased oyster consumption or actual increasing bacterial numbers in the water. If the latter, are warmer summer water temperatures, associated with climate change, to blame? To address the heat issue, this year the Division of Marine Fisheries put in place a Vibrio control plan requiring more stringent directives on handling shellfish products, including shading and icing by harvesters to keep the shellfish cool. In an attempt to lower the number of cases, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has instituted rules requiring a prohibition on shellfish harvesting if two or more confirmed cases are linked to an individual water body. This is exactly the situation that triggered the closure of Katama Bay.

In many cases, the water body is not the problem and an outbreak is due to improper handling someplace along the supply chain between harvest and final consumption. If at any point along this chain, the product is not kept cool, an insignificant level of bacteria in an oyster can multiply into amounts numerous enough to render the shellfish hazardous. A mandatory tagging system is in place that tracks the handling of shellfish between producer/harvester and consumer. This tagging provides a paper trail and helps when investigating the source of the problem. If the health investigation fails to find a violation in food handling at the wholesale or retail level, the investigation continues and the tagging system allows tracing the oysters to their source — both the harvester and water body.

In the case of their investigation, two cases of food-borne illness were determined by public health officials to have originated in Katama Bay and resulted in its closure. I was surprised and disturbed when the growers implicated by public health officials told me that they received no prior notice before seeing their names put up on a screen at the public forum. I think common courtesy would have demanded some prior contact with the growers. The surprise public accusations sparked a public discussion and questions about missing tags that in the end soiled an otherwise professional presentation. For everyone’s benefit, let’s hope for better future channels of communication.

Despite relatively clear protocols for closing the bay to harvest, the process for reopening appears less cut and dried. This is partly due to not a very complete understanding about the science of the Vp organism. Add to that the fact that this is a new problem for Massachusetts. To open Katama Bay, three criteria need to be met. First, there need to be no new cases tied to the water body. The mandatory recall of all the questionable shellfish from the marketplace should easily assure this requirement. More problematical, samples of oysters from the Bay need to be tested for Vp over a three-week period. The identification of pathogenic strains of vibrio is a difficult process but luckily a lab in New York experienced in the procedures is available. Lastly, there must a documented drop in water temperatures in the bay to a level believed to lower the natural occurring numbers of Vp. For the affected growers unable to sell their oysters, none of this can happen soon enough.

Lost income from the sale of their oysters is not the only problem for the growers. Like any farming operation there are production cycles that need to be adhered to. At this time of year their oysters are rapidly growing and if the market-sized animals cannot be moved there are no cages freed up to thin the others. Growers also worry about their markets. The lucrative raw bar market demands a certain smaller-sized oyster. Will their oysters grow too large to market? In the absence of product will their established restaurant outlets change their printed menus and not want to purchase oysters when the ban is lifted?

Despite thoughts to the contrary, this latest obstacle is not the prelude to a requiem. These fishermen-farmers are a tough lot and are not inexperienced in dealing with crises. Like fishermen, they regularly deal with storms that threaten their boats and gear. Like farmers, they battle the parasites and predators that can decimate their crops. They are proactive and already talking about forming a local oyster growers’ association and adopting food safety management measures above required norms.

The industry they represent is ideal for the Vineyard and deserves our support. Oyster aquaculture is a sustainable green industry providing lucrative employment while producing a sustainable local food product whose production actually results in cleaner water. Anyone would be hard pressed to come up with an industry providing greater benefits to our Island. So please lend them your support and buy their oysters, both large (great for cooking) and small, when they again become available.

Lastly, I think it is important to try to put this food safety closure in some perspective. While I applaud efforts to make our food supply more safe, we need to realize that everyday living exposes us to many risks. The chance of being struck by lightning in the U.S. over the course of a year is 1 in 500,000. This does not keep most people from venturing outside, but common sense will keep them off a golf course during an electrical storm. Likewise, there are inherent risks in consuming any raw food especially for anyone with a compromised immune system. If you fall into that category, please don’t eat raw shellfish. The two confirmed cases of Vp linked to Katama Bay occurred during a period when an estimated 300,000 oysters were harvested and consumed from the bay. The CDC uses a model that claims for each reported case there are 142 unreported. I’m not sure how that number is derived but perhaps with all the media hype about Vibrio, fewer cases are going unreported. I leave you with a quote from the French poet Léon-Paul Fargue: “I love oysters. It’s like kissing the sea on the lips.”

Intimacy carries risks.

Rick Karney is executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.