Toxin 
levels fall, growers poised to harvest

01/09/2014

Hog Island Oyster Company dispatched a boat to the outer reaches of Tomales Bay on Wednesday morning, where workers pulled bags of oysters that might finally make their way to customers deprived of the bay’s fare for weeks due to high levels of a dangerous biotoxin. Those levels have declined in recent days: a sample tested on Monday showed toxin levels were below the federal threshold for the second consecutive week.

Hog Island farm director Erik Schlagenhauf said he could be selling oysters by Friday, but first roughly a dozen specimens that each Marshall-based oyster company packs in a cooler and drives to a state health department lab in Richmond must be cleared for consumption. 

That could happen Thursday morning, but if one grower’s meat surpasses the acceptable threshold for the biotoxin, they must all send their boats back out and deposit the harvest in the water. 

Both Hog Island and nearby Tomales Bay Oyster Company have been selling imported shellfish—some from Washington State, some from Drakes Estero—but the total closure of shellfish harvest has already spanned the holiday season that brings flocks of tourists to Point Reyes. According to Tod Friend, the owner of Tomales Bay Oyster Company, “The damage is done.”

Mr. Friend did not raise its prices over the holidays, despite the cost of bringing in outside oysters, since his primary goal was to have a supply for the hungry hordes that would otherwise be turned away. “I want to have something for my customers. Whether I’m making a lot of money on it isn’t the primary issue,” he said. 

His son, Shannon Gregory, the general manager of the Marshall Store, was more direct about the financial realities. “We just have to suck it up,” he said. 

The health department has taken a conservative approach to the closure, Mr. Friend said; for instance, although his oysters in the inner bay have never tested above the threshold for consumption, he cannot sell those bivalves because they are too close to Cove Mussel Company, whose shellfish has exceeded allowable limits. 

He says he can live with that overly safe approach since a sickness could foment public distrust of the product. (Back in the summer of 1980, 47 people became sick with paralytic shellfish poisoning from eating oysters traced to Johnson’s Oyster Company.) 

But the testing has eaten up time, as each grower must drive the samples to Richmond about twice a week. “It’s a lot of running around to take samples,” Mr. Gregory said. 

Cove Mussel Company is completely closed, unable to do any business at all because it has just a single lease in the inner bay. One of its customers, Osteria Stellina, is now importing mussels from Prince Edward Island, in Canada, to compensate. 

Though the state health department imposes a quarantine on recreational shellfish harvesting from May to October every year, it says it cannot predict biotoxin events. Scientists know that the microorganisms that produce the toxin need both sunlight and nutrients to grow, but the agency says the exact combination needed to produce the biotoxin is not yet understood.

 

All shellfish sold by commercial growers is safe for consumption. For up-to-date alerts on recreational shellfish harvesting, call the state health department’s shellfish hotline at (800) 553.4133.