Illnesses linked to a bacterial contamination are forcing Massachusetts to shut down a growing number of oyster beds, threatening a burgeoning industry and causing angst among local oyster growers.
Health officials say the culprit is Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacterium, which has been in the waters off the coast for generations, The Associated Press reported.
No one, though, is certain of how the increase in Vibrio-related illnesses came about.
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Massachusetts health officials have confirmed 50 Vibrio cases since May, nearly double the number during the same period last year. Other states also have seen increases, including Connecticut, which last month shut down oyster beds within its borders and issued a voluntary oyster recall after a Vibrio outbreak sickened at least 14 people. Across the country in the state of Washington, officials in King County, home of Seattle, said Vibrio has sickened twice as many people as normal.
The 260 or so oyster farmers in Massachusetts harvested some $12 million worth of the delicacy last year. Though that is a far cry from what is pulled from the waters of Louisiana, the oyster king of the United States, it still is in the Top 5 nationally. And oyster harvests grew by more than two-thirds between 2010 and 2012, according to the AP.
Massachusetts announced the first closures of farms on Aug. 30 for beds near Boston. A second closure was announced Monday in Katama Bay on Martha’s Vineyard. So far, some 14 percent of Massachusetts’ oyster farmers have been affected.
The Massachusetts Department of Public Health says that when ingested, “Vibrio causes watery diarrhea, often with abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Usually these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last three days.”
The agency adds that “Vibrio is an emerging, naturally occurring bacterial pathogen often found in oysters harvested from warmer waters. It has caused illnesses in the Gulf Coast and West Coast of the United States for a number of years. It is not related to pollution of Massachusetts shellfish.”
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