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Massive red tide hits shellfish industry in BC Canada

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Vancouver, Canada   

A large red tide outbreak on the West Coast has closed much of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands to bivalve shellfish harvesting, forcing restaurants to revamp menus, seafood merchants to search for other supplies, and shellfish festivals to get creative.clam

Much of the B.C. North Coast from Prince Rupert south, including large portions of Vancouver Island, all the Gulf Islands and most of the Strait of Georgia, are closed to harvesting of bivalves -- shellfish with two shells, such as oysters, mussels, clams, geoducks and scallops.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials say high levels of paralytic shellfish-poisoning toxin are present in those areas. Eating shellfish with the PSP toxin can cause severe illness or even death.

PSP is caused by naturally occurring algae in coastal waters, which tends to bloom when water temperatures rise.

Late Thursday, several areas on the west coast of Vancouver Island were still open.

But Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials said the situation can change quickly, and urge anyone heading out to check before harvesting in the still-open areas.

The closing is expected to last a minimum of another three weeks. Closed areas must have at least three weeks of acceptable PSP measurements before they can reopen.v While red tide closings happen every year on Vancouver Island, this is one of the largest and fastest closings seen in many years.

"It's huge. We can't get anything," said Chris Pearce, food service manager at Albion Fisheries.

She's heard it's the largest closing in 70 years, but Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials couldn't confirm that.

"I can say it's significant. I can't say it's the biggest, but it it's fairly extensive," said Kerry Marcus, shellfish sanitation program co-ordinator with DFO.

Most upsetting to Pearce is the lack of local oysters for the 12th Annual B.C. Wine and Oyster Fest, a key fundraiser for the Eldercare Foundation in Victoria.

"It was heartbreaking because it's such a worthy cause," Pearce said.

More than 50,000 oysters have been eaten in the past 11 years, and organizer Lori McLeod was looking forward to a record consumption at the June 30 event.

Until she was told about the red tide.

"At first, I went "Gulp, oh my gosh, what are we going to do?" McLeod said. It didn't take long, though, for the organizers, Albion Fisheries and Blue Crab Bar & Grill chef Phil Lavoie, to come up with a new plan.

It's now the Seafood Fest, featuring B.C. salmon prepared several ways and other seafood, including mussels from Prince Edward Island and fresh oysters from the East Coast. They also have some B.C. oysters set aside, and will try for more from areas that remain open. "We turned lemons into lemonade," McLeod said.

Ladysmith's Annual Oyster Festival also had a scare. They won't have local oysters, but will have 3,000 from a supplier on the West Coast, which is still open.

Local restaurateurs have grown used to red tide, something they deal with every year. They buy their shellfish from certified harvesters and growers.

"This is standard fare for people who live on the West Coast," said Tom Ferris, the owner of Ferris' Oyster Bar and Grill. After 16 years running the Yates Street restaurant, Ferris knows to have many other items on the menu, and will also bring in other seafood to fill the void.

Brasserie L'ecole chef and co-owner Sean Brennan said it's simply "Mother Nature doing her thing."


- Paralytic shellfish poisoning can cause serious illness and even death. Early symptoms include tingling of the lips and tongue, which may progress to finger and toes and then loss of control of arms and legs, and difficulty breathing.

- Shellfish containing toxic levels of PSP don't look or taste any different from non-toxic shellfish.

- Cooking or freezing does not kill the poison.

- Other shellfish without two shells, such as crab and shrimp are not affected by PSP.

- It is illegal to harvest shellfish from contaminated areas and people who do can be charged. is a privately owned Alaska news, weather, and information website based in Anchorage, Alaska.

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