Shellfish Markets Report Slow Sales

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

The sale of local shellfish has sometimes slowed but hasn't stopped on Martha's Vineyard, which has become an Island of harvestable shellfish in a sea of toxic red tide.

Louis Larsen, owner of the Net Result in Vineyard Haven, which wholesales much of the Vineyard shellfish to local restaurants, estimates that overall Island demand for shellfish is off 50-60 per cent from normal mid-June levels.

That represents an improvement from the height of the red tide scare last week, when Mr. Larsen estimates that demand was off 90 per cent.

At the Coop deVille restaurant on the Oak Bluffs harbor, demand for quahaugs and oysters has fallen 50 per cent, though owner Petey Berndt reports that demand has picked up again.

The situation has proven frustrating for a number of Vineyard shellfishermen, who can harvest clean product but can't move much of it.

In Vineyard Haven, shellfish constable Derek Cimeno reports that the scare effectively has sidelined six to ten commercial shellfishermen. Mr. Cimeno said some of them are working on their boats and gear with their unwanted free time, while others are doing landscaping for now.

That the Vineyard still is producing safe shellfish theoretically should give shellfishermen an opportunity to sell to off-Island markets deprived for now of the product. But Mr. Cimeno said off-Island demand has plummeted.

"Consumers don't want to be buying it," he said. "People are being a little paranoid."

Other Vineyard businesses that work with shellfish report less of an impact. At the Coach House in Edgartown, executive chef Ryan Hardy said, "I can't say that our sales have dropped dramatically," while Karen Flynn, owner of The Bite in Menemsha, reports no problems at all.

Rob Garrison, director of the Aquinnah Wampanoag shellfish hatchery in Menemsha Pond, said that while demand has slipped a bit in local markets for the hatchery's Tomahawk oysters, the bulk of the hatchery's sales - to restaurants in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. - have remained unaffected by the red tide news. The hatchery produces 10,000 to 15,000 oysters a week.

Red tide is the name given to a bloom of toxic plankton. The current bloom of red tide extends from the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine to many of the state waters in Massachusetts.

During red tide blooms, hardshell clams, softshell clams, oysters, mussels, whelks, and moon snails harvested from areas affected by the blooms are not safe to eat, according to the state Department of Public Health. Scallops are safe so long as consumers eat the muscle (the part of the scallop normally consumed) and not the animal's digestive or intestinal tracts.

Finfish, crabs and lobsters also are safe to eat, although people should avoid eating lobster tomalley (the liver or green part) of a lobster.

Eating toxic shellfish can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, the health department reports. The poisoning is caused by saxitoxin. After ingestion, this poison immediately affects the nervous system. Initial reactions are tingling of the lips and tongue, which spreads to the face, neck, fingertips and toes. Headache, dizziness and nausea follow.

In severe cases, the department reports, muscular paralysis and respiratory difficulty may occur within 5 to 12 hours. Fatalities from respiratory paralysis have been reported.

Evidence of red tide has been found in Vineyard waters, but nowhere near the unsafe levels that have shut down other waters in the state, including off Cape Cod.

Mike Syslo, the director of the state lobster hatchery in Oak Bluffs, has been testing Vineyard waters for red tide. Mr. Syslo said current levels come in about 30 micrograms per 100 grams of shellfish meat, well below the closure level of 80 micrograms. Mr. Syslo said the Vineyard levels have remained in the range of 20-30 micrograms during the state closures.

Although the red tide closures have grabbed national and even international headlines, their actual effect on the overall Vineyard economy pales beside, say, a slump in home construction or real estate sales.

Christine Flynn, affordable housing and economic development planner at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said that agriculture and fishing make up less than 2 per cent of the Vineyard economy.

Yet Ms. Flynn said shellfishing remains an important part of Vineyard life - not only for tourists who want to eat local shellfish when they visit the Island, but for year-round residents who appreciate the traditional and psychological contribution that shellfishing makes to Vineyard life.

"It's part of our character, it's part of our heritage," she said. "It's a trademark for the Vineyard."

Oak Bluffs last year issued 17 commercial shellfish licenses. Shellfish constable Dave Grunden estimates only two or three people earn more than 50 per cent of their income from shellfishing.

Overall shellfish activity on the Island, Mr. Grunden said, has slumped from 30 to 40 years ago, reflecting both a decline in available shellfish and competition from other ways of making a living. "You could make more money banging nails," he said.

Still, he said shellfishing remains a popular recreational activity on the Vineyard. Oak Bluffs issued 737 licenses last year, nearly all of them recreational.

The Vineyard shellfishery does generate real dollars and real economic value. In Oak Bluffs, the estimated value of the combined commercial and recreational shellfishery last year was $203,912. A multiplier provided by the state indicates the shellfishery's economic impact was $907,604. Edgartown's commercial shellfish harvest last year brought in more than $264,000. Vineyard Haven valued its overall shellfish harvest last year at more than $709,000.

For now, Island shellfishermen and the businesses that work with them hope that the red tide continues to stay away from the Vineyard, and that the public grows more comfortable with shellfish cleared for consumption.

"Any shellfish in the market right now are completely safe to eat," Mr. Garrison said.