Federal officials said Friday that the massive blooms of red tide that closed much of the New England coast to shellfish collecting constituted a commercial fishing failure, a designation that opens the door for federal disaster assistance.
Many shellfish beds along the Maine coast were closed to harvesting for weeks at a time this summer due to toxic levels of the naturally occurring algae. While all of the Maine coast suffered, the impacts from red tide were felt the most Down East.
“Eastern Maine was far more severe this year than in 2005, so it’s appropriate that they have a disaster declaration,” said Darcie Couture, director of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ biotoxin monitoring program.
Friday’s announcement by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez comes in response to a request two months ago by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Maine officials also supported the request.
A disaster declaration opens the door for Congress to allocate money to alleviate the financial hardships faced by shellfishermen and others in the industry.
Shellfish closures arising from the toxic algae bloom began in May in waters off Massachusetts and spread north to New Hampshire and Maine.
The closings bar the harvest of clams, mussels, oysters and other shellfish where high levels of red tide have been detected. Eating clams, mussels and other shellfish with high levels of the toxin can cause potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning.
DMR operates a rigorous monitoring and testing program to close areas with potentially toxic levels of red tide. That program is credited with helping ensure that infected shellfish do not make it to the commercial market.
Several people in Maine were sickened this year after eating shellfish collected in closed areas.
The contamination was so high that health officials recommended that lobster eaters avoid ingesting the tomalley, or liver, which is the only part of the lobster that accumulates red tide toxins.
Red tide levels largely dropped by August and September, allowing many shellfish beds to be reopened. Couture said Friday that the current closure for areas from the Maine-New Hampshire border to the Cape Elizabeth areas could be lifted in the next several weeks.
“It’s looking like we are past any danger for a fall bloom,” Couture said.
New England officials praised the declaration.
“This disaster declaration is a lifeline for thousands of our shellfishermen. Communities up and down our coast have been walloped by the latest red tide contamination and will now be eligible for federal financial assistance,” said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.