Katama oyster farmers battle bacterium and ambiguity

Suzanne Condon, Director, Bureau of Environmental Health for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, details why Katama Bay oyster beds were closed and what it will take to re-open them. — Photo by Barry Stringfellow

Updated 4:45 pm Wednesday, September 19

Katama Bay oyster farmers were anxious for answers as they gathered with state and local officials on Tuesday in Oak Bluffs. Instead, they find that unexpected questions have arisen.

Katama oysterman Jack Blake challenged the certainty of the state’s assertion that it was one of his oysters that sickened a customer at Nancy’s on August 2 — the event that triggered the shutdown of Katama Bay oystering.

State inspector of wholesale shellfish Steven Rice told Mr. Blake yesterday that he will investigate his assertion. Although further investigation will be done, the lead state official at Tuesday’s meeting said, in an email to the Times on Wednesday, that Mr. Blake’s complaint was unsupported.

For whom the shell tolls

A week had passed since Katama oyster farmers had been shut indefinitely after two people became ill with Vibrio parahaemolyticus, aka Vibro or Vp, traced to their bivalves. To make matters worse, the closure comes at one of their most productive times of the year.

The gravity of the packed gathering was highlighted by the presence of state Sen. Dan Wolf and state Rep. Timothy Madden, along with shellfish constables and health inspectors from the down-Island towns.

“I absolutely want to underscore that we know this is a financial hardship,” Senator Wolf said. “This is people’s livelihood, putting bread on the table. We will work with the department to make sure everyone here is made whole who depends on this for their livelihood. Please use us. Please be in touch with us if you have issues.”

“We truly understand the difficulties from the action we had to take,” said Suzanne Condon, director of the Bureau of Environmental Health for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who ran the proceedings. “The decision to close this area was not made lightly. I think the federal government would have preferred we close even sooner. But that’s not how we do things in Massachusetts. We believe in protecting public health but also doing a thorough investigation so we’re not hurting the industry with insufficient evidence. We took a little bit of grief on that.”

Oysters barred

Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a naturally occurring bacterium that thrives in warm water. At low levels, the bacteria can live in oysters with no adverse effects on humans. However, in warmer water, the bacteria population explodes exponentially, and people who consume the contaminated oysters may experience severe diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills. Vibrio can also infect people who go into the water with open wounds.

“Massachusetts has had an unusual number of people diagnosed with Vibrio since the season started on May 31,” said Ms. Condon. “Last year at this time, we had about 27 cases. This year we have 50. In 2011, we only had 13 cases.”

Last year, illnesses prompted regulators to order a control plan for the 2013 season. The plan included earlier icing of the shellfish after harvest, among other precautions. Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said at the meeting that he saw 100 percent compliance from farmers on the control plan this summer. But Vibrio still shut them down.

“Some folks question why we have to close down an entire industry when only a few people get sick,” said Ms. Condon, to the nods of many in the room. “According to the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug administration, for every individual with a confirmed diagnosis of Vibrio they estimate 142 people who actually have the illness but didn’t go to the doctor to have the specimen taken. So we’re not talking about 50 people in Massachusetts, we’re really talking about six to seven thousand people that probably have gotten sick.”

“In the cases we’ve seen this summer, we have a large number of confirmed cases that are relatively young, in their thirties and forties,” said Ms. Condon. “These are not the kind of people who go to their doctor with diarrheal illness. Usually, it’s the very old and very young, but not this year. We’re going to look at this.”

Noting that cooking oysters kills the Vibrio bacterium, Mr. Wolf asked if Katama oysters could be sold under a “cooking only” stipulation. Farmers were lukewarm to the idea. Raw oysters can fetch three times the price of those that are cooked. The consensus was they would be better off keeping the oysters in the water and waiting for the water to cool and for the oysters to flush out the bacteria — if the farmers can hold out that long.

The Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (ISSC) defines an outbreak of foodborne illness as two or more cases, not from the same household, from a particular growing area. During the summer of 2013, Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) investigated nine Vibrio cases with some relationship to Katama Bay. Seven of these cases were linked to problems at the retail level or multiple growing areas. But on September 9, MPDH received confirmation of two cases of Vibrio tied directly to Katama Bay oysters. According to reports, the oysters were served at Nancy’s in Oak Bluffs on August 1 and The Port Hunter in Edgartown on July 6.

Questions arise

Mr. Blake, owner of Sweet Neck Farm, told Ms. Condon he was at Nancy’s on or near the day the contaminated oyster was eaten, and that he saw oysters being served that were definitely not from Sweet Neck Farm. He said a Nancy’s employee confirmed they got oysters from two other sources. Oak Bluffs board of health chairman Patricia Bergeron concurred with Mr. Blake’s account. Given that this case of Vibrio triggered the entire Katama Bay shutdown, a potentially explosive moment somehow passed quietly.

In a telephone interview with the Times on Wednesday, Mr. Blake expressed surprise at the proceedings on a number of levels.

“I had no idea I was even implicated until the day before the meeting,” he said about the state’s report that denoted Sweet Neck Farm as the source of the second Vibrio-infected oyster. “When I was at Nancy’s, I saw other oysters that were definitely not mine. They were smaller and shaped more irregular. I was told by George [Nancy’s employee] that they got oysters from two other people. Whether they were from Katama, I don’t know because someone at Nancy’s was throwing away the tags. [All shellfish shipments have tags that identify the source, the harvest date, and delivery date.] But at least I think it would throw the whole thing into question. How can they say for sure it was one of my oysters?”

In a stroke of serendipity, Mr. Blake was scheduled for a routine inspection by Massachusetts Department of Health inspector Steven Rice this Wednesday morning. “I explained that Nancy’s had thrown away all their tags and he was really surprised,” Mr. Blake said. “He had no knowledge of that. He promised he was going to look into it.”

In an email to Ms. Condon on Wednesday, the Times asked if Mr. Blake’s assertion, which was backed up by the Oak Bluffs board of health at the meeting, put the shutdown in doubt. Ms. Condon replied, “

I checked with our inspectional staff and confirmed that the dates of consumption and delivery and related records ruled out any other product that may have been at the food establishment. We are happy to further discuss with Mr. Blake, but I believe he was copied on an earlier email I sent on this same subject this morning.”

Katama comeback

At the meeting, Ms. Condon explained there are several criteria that have to be met to reopen Katama Bay. First, they must determine that there have been no new cases of Vibrio tied to the Katama beds for two weeks from the period of closure [September 9]. Second, three sets of 12 oysters will be measured for Vibrio once a week, for three weeks. “We may not have to go the whole three weeks if water temperatures cooperate and there are no new cases,” said Ms. Condon. “In the first case of Vibrio, the water temperature was in the mid-seventies. The second case the water temperature was about seventy-nine. Right now it’s about 67 or 68, so that’s a good sign.”

Ms. Condon said that going forward, extensive examination will be done to determine ways of avoiding long closures in the future — if that’s possible. “This isn’t going to go away,” she said. “We’re seeing warmer waters, we’re seeing warmer temperatures, we’re seeing blue green algae in areas all over the state that we didn’t see even five years ago. The water’s going to continue to get warmer. Vibrio is a bacteria that thrives on warmth. The levels are going to just keep going up.”

Ms. Condon said the Wadsworth Center, a renowned laboratory run by the New York State Department of Health, will do the testing for the fastest possible results. She hopes to start testing by the end of the week.

“There is a path forward,” she said. “All of the state health departments are working with our marine fisheries folks to see how quickly we can get these areas reopened. Then over the winter, we’ll take a closer look at weather data and try to figure out how we, as a state, until 2011, never had to worry about Vibrio, and suddenly we have a Vibrio management plan and closures.”

On a more positive note, Ms. Condon announced that the Connecticut oyster farms that were closed on August 2 had just been reopened that day.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we’ll get through as quickly as possible,” said representative Madden. “We’ll help you get answers.”

“You have my word, we are all working as fast as we can,” said Ms. Condon.