Worst Red Tide in Years Hits Puget Sound

August 25, 2006

The worst red tide in years has shut down shellfish beds in much of Puget Sound and prompted serious public health worries, state officials said.

Expanded beach closures have not reached the heart of Washington state’s large farmed shellfish industry, and the state said commercial shellfish on the market have been tested and should be safe to eat.

But industry officials worried that more bad news could further damage businesses already reeling from a separate bacterial outbreak.

The state Health Department said the newest round of beach closures means virtually the entire shoreline from Everett south to just north of Olympia is off-limits for shellfish harvesting.

The eastern Kitsap Peninsula also has been affected, along with areas near Port Gamble, Port Ludlow and along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, said Frank Cox, a Health Department marine biotoxin coordinator.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had anything quite to this scale,” Cox said.

Scientists say toxic organisms called Alexandrium, which produce powerful neurotoxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, are present in very high levels. The organisms are present in blooms of algae that thrive in warm, calm summer weather.

The state closes shellfish-growing areas when measurements of the toxins reach 80 micrograms. But many areas are showing levels of 1,000 micrograms or more, with mussels at Port Ludlow in Jefferson County containing nearly 10,000 micrograms.

“I’m concerned if people ignore these warnings, we could wind up with people with illness, if not worse,” Cox said.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning can be fatal, but the last deaths in Washington state were in 1942. The latest serious illnesses were in 2000, when several people were sickened — some even paralyzed — after eating contaminated shellfish near Gig Harbor, Cox said.

Cooking does not eliminate the toxins, and people should be extremely careful when harvesting shellfish on public or private tidelands, officials said.

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