Katama Bay oyster farmers are back in business

Friday Afternoon oysters and wings special at Offshore Ale. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) announced late Friday, Oct. 4, that Katama Bay oyster beds, along with all other previously oyster beds in the state, could re-open as of Saturday, October 5.

State officials made the decision to reopen all of the growing areas after reviewing data showing no new human cases of Vibrio illness since the closure on September 9, along with declining weekly average water temperatures and a continuing trend of cooler daily water temperatures over the last week and a half. Colder water temperatures are less supportive of the growth of the bacteria that causes Vibrio illness in humans.

Katama Bay aqua farmers were shut down on September 9 after a second case of Vibrio parahaemolyticus, aka Vibro or Vp, was reportedly traced directly to their oysters.

“This is better news than I expected,” said Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall in a telephone call to the Times late Friday afternoon. “I was hopeful they would get open by Columbus Day and I’m an optimist. The water is down to 60 in the morning, and up to about 62 in the daytime, so that took care of the Vibrio. The farmers can go back to work at dawn tomorrow morning. Katama oysters should be back in the restaurants by Columbus Day.”

“I’m really happy for all the farmers and I’m certainly relieved,” said Jack Blake, owner of Sweet Neck Farm, in a telephone call with the Times Friday evening, as his wife, Susan, cheered in the background. “We haven’t stopped working. I’ve watched the sun rise every day. We’ve been getting our market size oysters ready to go. We have to empty some cages because we need the room, the seed is growing fast.”

Vibrio parahaemolyticus is a naturally occurring bacterium that thrives when water temperatures get warmer than 81 degrees, it can live and reproduce in temperatures as low as 60 degrees, either in the ocean or in the shells of harvested oysters. The bacteria causes severe stomach distress.

According to the Centers for Disease Control. “Severe disease is rare and occurs more commonly in persons with weakened immune systems. Vibrio parahaemolyticus can also cause an infection of the skin when an open wound is exposed to warm seawater.”

Last year, there were nine confirmed cases of illness from Vp statewide, according to DPH. The 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.