BELFAST, Maine — Shellfish harvesters and dealers in Down East Maine continue to face widespread closures due to a double punch of heavy rains followed by a massive influx of red tide algae into coastal waters.
A week ago, the Department of Marine Resources closed much of Maine’s coastline to shellfish harvesting due to concerns about contamination carried in surface water runoff after days of heavy rains. Those closures may remain in place for some time Down East, however, as the first major wave of seasonal red tide arrives in the region.
“Unfortunately, with all of the northeastern winds that we had, eastern Maine just got hit like a freight train by red tide,” said Darcie Couture, director of DMR’s biotoxin monitoring program.
Couture said it is difficult to predict how long the elevated red tide levels will persist.
“The numbers are very high,” she added.
Because of DMR’s monitoring program, any Maine shellfish purchased from certified dealers or restaurants are safe to consume, however.
On Friday, DMR closed much of the coastline from Roque Bluffs to the Canadian border to harvesting of clams, mussels, European oysters and carnivorous snails due to red tide. Some pockets of interior Cobscook Bay, Machias Bay and Little Kennebec Bay remain open to clamming.
Compounding the situation, most of the coastline from the New Hampshire border to Phippsburg has been closed to shellfish harvesting since June 18 due to red tide, not to mention the recent runoff. Other areas of Maine are also closed.
Couture said that unlike the situation Down East, where the red tide season is just getting under way, red tide levels in areas south of Penobscot Bay appear to be stabilizing.
The closures come at an extremely inopportune time for both harvesters and dealers, who are normally gearing up for the flock of tourists arriving for the Fourth of July holiday. Chad Coffin, president of the Maine Clammers Association, told the Portland Press Herald earlier this week that Maine clams are hard to find in the state.
Instead, dealers and restaurants are having to purchase shellfish from Canada and southern New England.
Couture said the mahogany clam fishery could be especially hard hit.
Seafood lovers should not be concerned about the safety of Maine clams, mussels and other shellfish that are sold at certified dealers, however. DMR’s aggressive and nationally recognized monitoring program ensures that any shellfish that go through certified dealers come only from areas deemed safe for harvesting.
“As long as you are buying from a certified dealer or a restaurant, you are safe,” she said. Couture added that consumers should not hesitate to ask about the certification if they are considering buying from an unknown seller.
Red tide algae occurs naturally in the waters off the coast of New England and elsewhere along the East Coast. But during large blooms, shellfish can accumulate potentially toxic levels of red tide while filter feeding. The resulting sickness, known as paralytic shellfish poisoning, can cause serious illness or death in humans who consume shellfish with toxic levels of red tide.
For detailed maps of shellfish closures or more information, go to www.maine.gov/dmr/index.htm.