Samish Bay oyster harvest suspended for summer

Taylor Shellfish crews harvest shellfish in Samish Bay during low tide in mid-July of 2014. Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald file

In the ongoing effort to reduce “bad oyster” illnesses, the state Department of Health recently installed 13 sensors along the shoreline.

One of the sensors was installed in Samish Bay with the help of Taylor Shellfish Farms. Samish Bay averages at least one case of vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria-related illness each year, according to Department of Health data.

Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has oyster beds in Samish Bay, was one of several commercial harvesters that partnered with the state on the project. Taylor installed and is managing the sensor in Samish Bay, as well as three others in south Puget Sound where the company operates other farms, spokesman Bill Dewey said.

“The temperature sensor is really helpful for us and other growers in the (Samish)bay as we implement the new vibrio regulations that went into effect this spring … The data is extremely helpful as we work to ensure we are harvesting from the coolest waters possible to minimize any risk of illness from the naturally occurring vibrio bacteria,” Dewey said.

Under the vibro control plan update, harvesters have to get shellfish on ice within a certain amount of time, depending on the time of year and air temperature.

As of this week, the sensors are sending real-time water temperature, air temperature and salinity data to nanoos.org, which is run by Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems.

The goal is to help commercial and recreational shellfish harvesters, as well as the state, keep a closer eye on water conditions. The temperature sensor network will help the shellfish industry plan harvests around temperature trends, which should improve product safety, according to the Department of Health.

Monitoring sites were selected based on the risk associated with past cases of illness caused by vibrio, which is a bacteria that thrives in warm temperatures and can cause intestinal distress to those who eat contaminated shellfish.

This year, no vibrio illnesses have been confirmed to have come from Samish Bay, but there are five cases that could have originated here, state Office of Environmental Health and Safety shellfish illness coordinator Clara Hard said. It’s often difficult to tell, because oysters from several harvest sites are sold together.

The sensors, at a cost of about $1,000 each, were purchased with funds from the Food and Drug Administration and National Estuary Program’s Pathogen Prevention, Reduction and Control grant programs, state Office of Environmental Health and Safety spokeswoman Laura Johnson said.

Access to the data does not replace the requirement for recording water temperatures at the time of harvest. That requirement was included in last year’s vibrio control plan update.

In 2014, the state Department of Health received 76 reports of vibrio-related illness, a handful of which led to a two-month closure for Samish Bay shellfish harvesters Taylor Shellfish Farms and Blau Oyster Co.

With the state Board of Health’s changes to the vibrio control plan, closures are based on weather conditions favorable to the bacteria, rather than when illnesses are confirmed.

Hard said the Department of Health hopes to eventually have 20 sensors hooked up to the real-time network.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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