With new protocols in place to prevent Vibrio parahaemolyticus outbreaks like the one that closed Katama Bay for three weeks last September, state officials visited the Vineyard this week to outline new policies for prevention of the bacteria and tell oyster farmers about state grants available to those that are making upgrades.
Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), a bacterial pathogen commonly found in warmer waters, causes gastrointestinal illness. Severe disease is rare and occurs more commonly in people with weakened immune systems. Vibrio infections can also occur when an open wound is exposed to sea water.
State officials have noted that the number of people sickened by Vp from eating shellfish has risen in the last few years, increasing from 13 in 2011 to 58 in 2013. Last September, Katama Bay was closed for almost four weeks after two people reported being sickened by oysters that were traced to the bay.
In response to the increased threat, the state has drafted new requirements for a Vibrio control plan that will be in effect for commercial growers from May 19 to October 19.
Aquaculture is a growing industry on the Vineyard. There are at least a dozen oyster farms on Katama Bay and towns have recently approved aquaculture licenses off Eastville Beach in Oak Bluffs and Eel Pond in Edgartown
Several oyster farmers gathered at the Katharine Cornell Theater Monday to hear about the new regulations from state Department of Health and Division of Marine Fisheries officials.
DPH director of policy and regulatory affairs Julian Cyr said the 2013 Vibrio control plan was vague on details like the amount of ice needed to completely surround oysters and definitions of time of harvest, time of icing and how to use ice slurries as an acceptable alternative.
Those things are more clearly outlined in the new plan: oyster harvesters will be required to ice oysters within two hours of harvest or exposure by tide. There are also more stringent requirements in regard to oyster tagging and record keeping.
Failing to comply with the plan can result in oysters being seized and permits being suspended or revoked.
State officials outlined a new three-tiered closure system they said would prevent lengthy area closures when risk factors are no longer present and prevents unnecessary recalls or consumer advisories. The closure duration is based on the number of confirmed illnesses with a 30 day period and will not apply in the event of an outbreak associated with an area.
To help understanding of the new regulations, the state will host an educational workshop about the new control plan on April 29 at noon at the Katharine Cornell Theatre.
State Department of Agriculture aquaculture specialist Sean Bowen said aquaculture is an $8 million industry in Massachusetts, but has an indirect impact of $16 million to $24 million, with 350 shellfish aquaculture licenses providing 624 jobs in the state. He said the industry provides coastal employment that can be difficult to get outside of the tourism, and has “distinct environmental impacts.”
To help oyster farmers, Mr. Bowen said the state has a reimbursement grant program for up to $10,000 per applicant, or 75 percent of their total project cost, to fund improvements to meet the new regulations. Eligible projects include new coolers and cold storage, ice machines, testing equipment and harvest gear upgrades. Applications must be completed by April 23.
Some Island oyster farmers noted that the Vineyard’s geography poses unique problems.
Edgartown oyster farmer Jason Bennett said taking the oysters off-Island makes it hard to comply with guidelines that mandate getting the oysters to a certain temperature in a set period of time because the Steamship Authority no longer consider oysters a perishable. “It’s difficult to comply with the law when we have to make a reservation a week in advance and selling the product, it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. He added that when he first started his business, the Steamship Authority would scoot him on the boat because he’d say the oysters are perishable, while now he has to wait on standby while “the ice is melting.”
Mr. Cyr said the state could talk to the Steamship Authority about that issue.
Edgartown oyster farmer Scott Castro suggested being proactive and testing oysters every week. “If we saw the level starting to rise we could voluntarily close,” he said. “Instead of having the state come in and close us and getting the bad press and having it snowball out of control.”
He added that he felt like the burden of Vibrio control was being placed on the growers. “No restaurant got closed,” he said. “As a grower, from where I’m sitting we’re all supposed to be on the same page,” he said, noting the harm that could come when a restaurant has a “100 pound bag of oysters on a stainless steel counter in 95 degree kitchen.”
“I guess I just have a problem with it being automatically assumed that the burden is on the growers,” he added.
“I appreciate that frustration,” Mr. Cyr said, noting that the state department of health does not license restaurants.
Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said Edgartown and Oak Bluffs boards of health will be holding a training session for retail establishments on May 13.
“That’s exactly the kind of partnership we need from locals,” Mr. Cyr said.
Chilmark shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer said he thought it was a “really good plan.”
“Every department has worked really hard. I applaud the effort...it is appreciated, believe me,” he said, adding that the easiest course of action would have been shutting down oyster harvesting during warm summer months.