Minimizing Red Tide Losses

Posted Aug. 06, 2009, at 6:37 p.m.

This year’s red tide outbreak, one of the worst on record, appears to be easing. While this is good news for shellfish harvesters, dealers and consumers, additional research could help ease the economic consequences of future outbreaks.

Since red tide closed most of the state to shellfish harvesting for most of the summer, the state is likely to request federal disaster assistance for shellfish harvesters and growers. While cash payouts help a little, funding research to predict the location and severity of red tide, along with extensive monitoring, will pay larger dividends.

Money the state received as part of disaster payouts in 2005 and 2008 has helped establish and maintain monitoring systems in Casco and Cobscook bays. Using buoy monitors in Casco Bay, state officials were able to target closed areas rather than putting the entire bay off-limits. The bloom in Cobscook Bay was so extensive that the monitoring showed the entire region needed to be closed.

Red tide algae occur naturally in the waters off 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.

Clams and other shellfish purchased through dealers certified by the Department of Marine Resources and restaurants remain safe to eat.

This year’s outbreak was so extensive due to a variety of weather-related consequences. During the overcast weather that dominated the early summer, the red tide algae grew much more rapidly than other varieties. Winds from the east and northeast then pushed the bloom toward shore, where a diet of dirt, wood and leaves washed into the ocean by the persistent rains fed the algae even more.

As a result, the Department of Marine Resources closed nearly the entire coast to harvesting for weeks. Much of the coast remains closed.

A study by Kevin Athearn, associate professor of natural resource economics at the University of Maine at Machias, concluded in 2005 that a statewide, one-week August closure for soft-shell clams, mahogany quahogs and mussels would result in an estimated loss of $1.2 million in harvester sales and a total economic loss of $2.9 million for Maine’s economy.

The losses for this summer are estimated by the Department of Marine Resources to be $10 million.

Last month, Sen. Olympia Snowe asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to allocate more money to red tide research. A research vessel monitored the algae bloom farther out to sea to help state officials determine that the outbreak was abating. This helped the state determine that it will be safe to reopen areas along the coast once the local samples are clear without fear of another outbreak. A bill Sen. Snowe introduced to further boost research was passed this week by the Senate Commerce Committee.

Red tide will plague the Maine coast every year, so additional research on ways to limit the algae’s impact on the people who harvest and grow shellfish is needed.

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