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Tests Help Fisheries Service Reopen Georges Bank for Shellfish Harvesting

NOAA Fisheries now allows clam harvests in an area of Georges Bank off limits for the last 22 years to protect people from getting ill from algae toxins. Their decision centers on a two-part testing protocol that commercial fishermen and labs will use before bringing a catch to market. Once the haul arrives at the dock, Food and Drug Administration-approved labs confirm the test’s accuracy before allowing the clams to go on sale. Investigators, led by scientists funded in part by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, developed and validated the tests to ensure the harvests are safe to eat–and re-open over 6,000 square miles of seafloor.

As filter feeders, shellfish are susceptible to concentrating a certain algae called Alexandrium fundyense that releases natural toxins when it blooms, and is responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans who eat fish or shellfish exposed to sufficient amounts of it. The expense of monitoring and testing this vast and remote location is prohibitively expensive so Fisheries banned shellfish harvesting there in 1990.

The proposed re-opening is based on a request from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council suggested last year after seeing the results. Fisheries posted to the Federal Register in August, and shellfish harvesting in Georges Bank may resume on January 1, 2013. Shellfish toxicities, often measured during the development of the protocol, generally tested low.  So the research scientists deemed the low risk combined with the use of the protocol sufficient to resume harvesting the multimillion-dollar clam fishery on Georges Bank.

The GOMTOX project also investigates the causes of blooms of A. fundyense and develops predictive models. Since 2008, project investigators provide state shellfish and public health managers with seasonal outlooks of bloom severity and weekly forecasts of bloom intensity and location. The most recent forecast in 2012 predicted a moderate red tide. Such forecasts are used to plan for the upcoming year and to improve monitoring to protect public health and minimize economic impacts.

For much more detail on this project, visit the Ocean Science blog interview with its manager.

Read the Fisheries announcement

More information on Atlantic surfclams

More information on Ocean Quahogs

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