State says shellfish safe to harvest


Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 12:27 a.m.
A state ruling late Wednesday has gotten the Cedar Key shellfish industry off to a very happy start in 2004.
A red tide has abated and clams and oysters can once again be harvested along the Levy County coastline.
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced that a more than weeklong ban on shellfish harvesting was being lifted at sunrise today.
The ban was issued just before Christmas after routine water samples turned up marine phytoplankton at triple the permissible levels. Red tides are the result of microscopic plant-like cells blooming and producing neurotoxins that can kill marine life-forms and sicken humans.
Shellfish are filter feeders. Anything they ingest, including red tide toxins, is temporarily stored in their meat.
Cedar Key shellfish have been a staple on dinner tables as far north as New York City for years. The little city along the Gulf of Mexico has dubbed itself, "The USA's #1 Producer of Farm-Raised Clams." Industry officials said the community of less than 1,000 residents has an average annual harvest of 100 million clams with a dockside value of $10 million.
Sue Colson, a board member and projects director of the Cedar Key Aquaculture Association, said her organization's clammers and oystermen view the temporary shut down as a success.
"We have a network of safety systems and this proves that our monitoring system is working," Colson said. "We understand - but we are not happy about - this natural phenomenon. We are proud that our system to alert us to a water quality problem worked so well."
Red tides normally drift toward the Gulf Coast further south in Florida, but unusual wind patterns earlier this month carried the phenomenon toward Cedar Key. Although it is something only expected less than once in a decade in this area of Florida, weekly water quality monitoring by the agriculture department screens for it, along with other potentially harmful conditions.
According to department spokeswoman Liz Compton, once the state saw no red tide in water samples taken Monday, a confirming test was conducted at a state lab on Tuesday and Wednesday to insure that any shellfish harvested would be safe for human consumption.
"We collect about three dozen clams, remove the meat and make it into a puree," Compton said. "Then we extract any red tide toxin that may still have been in the meat and we inject it into five mice. We watch the mice for several hours and if they die, then we know there is still much toxin remaining in the meat. Otherwise it is fine for humans."
To insure that no shellfish from the closed area were harvested, several agencies stepped up patrols along the coastline during the past week, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Spokeswoman Karen Parker said late Wednesday that the commission had not issued any citations for illegal harvesting during the shut down.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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