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 user 2005-06-16 at 10:23:00 am Views: 88
  • #11539

    Toxic Tide Pushing Shellfishers Into the Red

    Bruce Keafer was looking down the barrel of his microscope for signs of red tide. But he didn’t expect to see the first evidence of New England’s worst outbreak in three decades.

    The ocean biologist’s research vessel was 15 miles off Cape Cod. He had already inspected water samples from two other spots in Massachusetts Bay and found only a few of the toxic algae cells that contaminate shellfish.

    Suddenly, the water in a new slide under his microscope was swimming with them.

    He started to count the cells, which look like two hard hats pressed together brim to brim, using a hand counter. Click, click, click. A colleague heard the sound and came over.

    “We got a lotta cells here,” Keafer said. “So many I can’t count ‘em all.” It was time to call state fisheries officials: Boston, we have a problem.

    That was May 10. A month later, clam beds from Maine to Massachusetts have been closed, thousands of shellfishermen are out of work, and the red tide bloom shows no sign of abating. A reading of 200 red tide cells per liter of seawater is considered toxic; since their initial discovery, scientists aboard the research ship have found 40,000 per liter.

    The infestation comes at the peak of shellfishing season, when vacationers begin to gobble clams, oysters and mussels.

    “This couldn’t come at a worse time,” says Ted Keon, coastal resources director for the Cape Cod town of Chatham, site of one of the region’s most productive shellfish beds. “This is when the shellfishermen make their money. They’re really up the creek.”

    Red tide is named for the rust color that intense concentrations of algae sometimes paint ocean water. The type of red tide algae in New England contaminates shellfish — but not lobster, shrimp or fin fish — and can make people who eat it sick. The shellfish that ingest the algae aren’t harmed, and they flush it out of their systems after the water clears.

    A different strain of red tide afflicts southern waters. Besides contaminating shellfish, it creates noxious fumes and can close beaches. But swimmers in Cape Cod waters should not be affected.

    Behind the outbreak

    Every spring, warm water and sunlight cause the explosive growth of the local Alexandrium algae in the Gulf of Maine. Scientists attribute this year’s massive outbreak to two factors:

    · A wet winter and spring that infused large amounts of freshwater into the Gulf of Maine, which fostered the algae’s germination.

    · Strong east and northeast winds, including several big storms, which blew the algae cloud south toward the relatively warm waters of the main offshore digging banks instead of out to sea.

    Dennis McGillicuddy is a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who was aboard the vessel that logged the first big red tide readings last month. He says the bloom also could have been fed by an increase in the number of algae cysts deposited on the ocean floor by previous blooms. The cysts can stay dormant for months or years before germinating and rising to the surface.

    If he’s right, future cases of red tide along the coast could be even more serious.

    This year the algae spread into Massachusetts Bay and moved for the first time through the Cape Cod Canal into Buzzards Bay, on the other side of the cape. The bloom also moved southeast around the outer tip of Cape Cod and spread south to Chatham, on the cape’s elbow. Scientists fear the tide could continue to spread south to Rhode Island.

    About two-thirds of Massachusetts’ shellfishing sites are closed and likely to remain so until the tide recedes — at least several more weeks.

    The region’s worst previous red tide outbreak was 1972, when Massachusetts closed all its shellfish beds. Michael Hickey, the state’s chief shellfish biologist, says the current outbreak probably has affected a greater area than that one.

    Red tide is the talk of coastal New England, where waiters recite the latest news along with the day’s specials.

    “Nine out of 10 people who come in ask, ‘How’s it goin’ with the red tide?’ ” says Mac Hay, owner of three retail fish markets, a wholesale operation and “a glorified clam shack” on the pier in Wellfleet Harbor on Cape Cod.

    “Every day it gets worse,” he says of shellfish sales, which normally account for a third of his business. “People aren’t going for the stuff we’re importing from Canada and Virginia. If you come to Wellfleet, you want Wellfleet oysters.”

    Stephen Martinello, director of quality control at Legal Sea Foods, which has 31 restaurants along the Eastern Seaboard, says the company is buying uncontaminated shellfish from Canada, New York and New Jersey. “But if this goes on, supplies will start to dwindle and price will skyrocket,” he says. “It’s gonna be tough to get clams.”

    A blow to business

    One attraction to the business of shellfishing is low overhead. In towns such as Chatham, shellfishers work much as they have since colonial times, with nothing more than a rake and a basket.

    And they are being hurt by the infestation. “This should be the time of year when you start coming out of the hole and make some money,” says Pete Schimmel, 45, who has dug clams on the cape for 15 years. “You’re just through paying your taxes, your license, your mooring fees.”

    Some clammers have other occupations. Tom Upson, 46, earns about half his income from the seabed. He also paints and sells watercolor seascapes. This week, he’s finishing work on a scene of the Stage Harbor Lighthouse and lobbying officials for emergency assistance.

    The governors of Massachusetts and Maine have declared a state of emergency, allowing their states to seek federal disaster aid for the shellfish industry. Sen. John Kerry and other members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation have asked the Small Business Administration to see whether the shellfishers are eligible for low-interest loans.

    Seasonal shellfishers include college students such as Shannon Eldredge, 22, a recent graduate of Keene State College in New Hampshire. She hoped to make about $10,000 this summer to pay off student loans and save for graduate school. “Now I can’t clam,” she says, “and no other job in town measures up. I’m broke.”