The Gloucester shellfish warden is urging the public to refrain from all shellfish harvesting at city beaches and flats during the current red tide closure to guard the health of both the public and the city’s commercial shellfish industry.

Shellfish Warden Peter Seminara said his staff documented 16 violations in just the past week — including one on July 3 that involved 70 pounds of illegally harvested surf clams and another on the Fourth of July involving 40 pounds of surf clams. Both incidents occurred at Wingaersheek Beach.

“We’re really trying to alert all beachgoers to the health dangers of taking shellfish during the closure,” Seminara said Friday. “It presents a danger to the public’s health and it does have an economic impact on our commercial clamming industry if people start getting sick from shellfish harvested in Gloucester.”

The portion of the city’s shellfish areas in Essex Bay was closed June 18 because of the red tide, or algal blooms, that occurs when pollution causes toxin-producing algae to proliferate, posing a serious threat of illness or death if ingested. The remaining city shellfish areas followed suit on June 20.

Waters, tributaries and flats off Essex, Ipswich, Rowley, Newbury, Newburyport and Salisbury are also closed due to red tide.

Seminara said the state Division of Marine Fisheries and his own staff continue to test harvesting areas on a weekly basis. Because of testing protocols, he said it will be at least three more weeks before the ban is lifted along the North Shore.

“We need three consecutive tests with descending counts to open the areas,” he said. “So, that’s at least three more weeks. But we’re still patrolling daily.”

Seminara said people — particularly visitors from out of town — should refresh their understanding of the permitting rules for shellfish harvesting.

“First of all, they need a permit and they need to be a Massachusetts resident to harvest shellfish from Massachusetts shellfish beds,” Seminara said. “Most importantly right now, they absolutely cannot take any shellfish from anywhere in Gloucester until further notice.”

In the July 3 incident, Deputy Shellfish Constable Rebecca Visnick was in the parking lot at Wingaersheek Beach when she observed a group of seven men on the beach with coolers, pitch-forks and a long-handle spade.

She approached them and found them to be carrying about 70 pounds of surf clams, also known as hen clams, in their cooler.

“One of the men had a one-day Gloucester permit, but it turned out to be an illegal permit because he was not a Massachusetts resident,” Seminara said. “Those clams were headed for New Hampshire in what could have been a serious threat to the public health.”

On the Fourth of July, two diggers were issued non-criminal citations for not having a permit and harvesting during a red tide closure.

If cited criminally, illegal harvesters could face a minimum fine of $500 for harvesting during a red tide closure and other potential fines up to $2,000 and two years in jail if convicted. 

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or shorgan@gloucestertimes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.