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Editorial: Hot water ripples through shellfish industry

Crucial that regulators — and growers — get it right

Published on August 10, 2015 10:33AM

Crucial that regulators — and growers — get it right

Side effects continue rippling through the coastal economy from this year’s warm ocean temperatures, with the potential that Willapa oyster growers will be on the receiving end of even more regulations. Already, based on an existing desire to enhance shellfish safety, growers must ice their product much quicker than in the past.

As reported in last Friday’s edition of Coast River Business Journal, the Port of Peninsula in Nahcotta this summer began supplying large quantities of ice to growers who have to comply with a rule that sharply cuts the length of time they have before harvested oysters are brought down to a safe 50 degrees.

Bacteria can grow in oysters that aren’t kept sufficiently cool, just as is true for other perishable foods such as chicken and dairy products. In shellfish, this can lead to acute gastrointestinal distress, a phenomenon Mark Twain famously encountered in Nevada in 1866, leading him to unleash a diatribe about “scoofy” oysters that effectively killed the Mexican oyster industry. In modern times, U.S. oyster growers take great pains to sell only the safest products, since doing otherwise can result in customer dissatisfaction, Department of Health scrutiny and a torrent of bad publicity.

In effect since May 1, Washington state’s new shellfish-cooling rule impacts about 150 of the state’s 349 license holders. Notwithstanding a recent controversy about how to control mud shrimp, Willapa Bay famously produces consistently healthy oysters and clams, and thus is in the lowest-risk category for temperature-safety compliance. This premium reputation results in valuable export sales to places like Hong Kong.

Even so, ensuring the rules are followed will make aquaculture operations more challenging on Willapa, a water body 260 square miles in size — the second largest on the West Coast after San Francisco Bay.

Rule implementation and follow-up will be complicated this year due to the “Blob” — a pool of warm water in the Pacific just offshore — plus an El Nino temperature pattern in the equatorial Pacific that scientists suspect may become the strongest in recorded history. This enormous patch of sun-heated water, concentrated by cyclical wind and current conditions, could be a juggernaut that throws conditions out of natural balance through the ocean, and perhaps worldwide. It is, in other words, not an ideal year in which to have state regulators carefully weighing future steps on how to safely manage shellfish temperatures.

Yet another complication is the bloom of a type of marine organism that sometimes produces domoic acid, a substance distinct from the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria that causes scoofy oysters. Domoic acid poisoning can resemble sickness caused by vibrio, meaning it will be more difficult to identify the cause of shellfish-related complaints, if any arise later this year.

A 2013 study estimated more than $90 million in economic benefits from shellfish farming in Pacific County, money that sustains other businesses throughout the Columbia-Pacific region. It is crucial that regulators get it right when it comes to shellfish safety and that growers continue to find effective ways to adapt to a changing ocean and climate.


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