The recent state-ordered closures of oyster beds in Duxbury, Marshfield, Kingston, and Plymouth have left local aquaculturists reeling from lost revenues and wondering when they'll get back to business.
Officials banned oyster harvesting in Plymouth Harbor, Kingston Bay, Duxbury Bay, Bluefish River, and Back River on Aug. 30 following an outbreak of vibrio parahaemolyticus, a naturally occurring organism that can cause gastrointestinal illness. On Sept. 9, the state announced another closure of oyster beds, this time in Katama Bay on the western end of Martha's Vineyard. The ban now affects more than three dozen oyster farmers south of Boston.
"The oyster beds could reopen by the end of the month or early October if certain conditions are met under federal guidelines, including no new cases of vibrio from the closed beds in the two weeks after the closure, and lower water temperatures and lower vibrio levels in the closure areas," David Kibbe, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said in an e-mail.
Vibrio is "relatively new for Massachusetts," said Kibbe. This marks the first time the state has closed down specific oyster beds because of the organism.
The bacterium, when ingested, can cause diarrhea, as well as abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever, and chills, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms typically occur within hours and last for about three days; but people with weakened immune systems may experience more severe problems. The CDC estimates that 4,500 cases occur each year in the United States.
Since May 31, there have been 50 reports of laboratory-confirmed vibrio parahaemolyticus in Massachusetts residents, compared with 27 cases during the same time period last year. Thirty-one of the cases were linked to raw oysters harvested from Massachusetts growing areas.
State officials announced their crackdown after three recent cases of vibrio illness were found to be linked to oysters harvested south of Boston. They ordered a recall of oysters harvested from those areas since July 22, and banned commercial oyster harvesting at those sites until further notice. There is little recreational harvesting of the mollusk.
All three people who became ill have since recovered. But the open-ended harvesting ban has left many oyster farmers wondering when things would get back to normal.
"We didn't see this coming," said Don Merry, who owns Merry Oysters, a Duxbury oyster farm that sells to Legal Sea Foods. "Our water temperatures are generally cooler. . . . We never had a vibrio problem."
When it comes to oysters, refrigeration is key, according to Merry. State guidelines require that oysters are put on ice immediately after harvest and kept out of direct sunlight during shipping. Merry wonders whether someone who received the affected oysters did not handle them properly, which can elevate the level of vibrio bacteria.
"Unfortunately, we can do everything possible to handle oysters correctly, but . . . whoever handles the oysters down the line has the ability to make someone sick," said Merry.
All of his oysters get checked out by a laboratory, he said, and thus far, "there's never been a trace of vibrio."
Typically, Merry harvested 10,000 oysters a week. With the ban, he's down to zero.
"As harvesters and fishermen, we've been working on our reputations and brands for 15 years," said Merry. "We can't even quantify what this could do to our businesses."
He estimates he'll lose $25,000 if the ban continues for a month.
"It's kind of like having an inventory you can't sell until the state lifts the ban," said Merry. "It's just an economically hard thing, to take away a paycheck for a month or more."
Ben Lloyd, who owns an oyster farm in Duxbury and Pangea Shellfish and Seafood Co., a wholesale business based in Boston, said his business has also been suffering because of the ban.
"We can't harvest right now, and we're dealing with that," he said. His wholesale business also gets oysters from three growers in Duxbury and one in Kingston, but that can't happen until the ban is lifted.
"On the wholesale end, it's been difficult," Lloyd said.
There are 261 oyster growers in 22 communities in Massachusetts, and the annual harvest has "increased rapidly" in the last decade, according to state figures. In 2010, commercial oyster landings totaled 58,593 bushels (2.9 million pounds) valued at $6,969,003; in 2012 the harvest totaled 82,396 bushels (4.1 million pounds) valued at $11,640,498.
Landings for 2012 in areas recently closed because of vibrio averaged about 85,000 pounds per month at this time of the year (August to October) and were valued at approximately $275,000 per month, according to Mary-Leah Assad, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Landings from Katama Bay represent about a quarter of this total, while the Duxbury, Plymouth, and Kingston areas represent about three-quarters of the haul, she said.
Harbormaster Michael DiMeo said the ban has not affected Marshfield because there isn't any commercial oyster harvesting there. But in nearby South Shore towns and others that are affected, "it's a huge deal," he said.
Shore Gregory, president of Island Creek Oysters of Duxbury, one of 37 oyster growers in the Greater Plymouth area affected by the ban, released a statement the day the oyster beds were shut down, saying the company goes to "great lengths" to ensure the safety of its oysters and was recalling those sold from the affected areas since July 22.
"As a further precaution we will not be harvesting any oysters from the farms in these areas until we, alongside public health officials, can absolutely ensure there is no risk of people becoming ill from eating our oysters," the statement said.
Island Creek Oysters had been selling more than 100,000 oysters a week, according to its website.