UPDATE: Red tide closes Cape Ann shellfishing beds

PUAL BILODEAU/Staff photo/Signs at Conomo Point in Essex warn would-be shellfishermen that the flats are closed. Levels of red tide, or paralytic shellfish poison, exceed safe levels in Essex Bay, closing down the shellfish industry on Cape Ann until further notice.

Red tide has hit Cape Ann and the North Shore, and all shellfishing is banned.

The state’s Division of Marine Fisheries on Thursday banned harvesting of all softshell and razor clams on Cape Ann and the North Shore. That followed an announcement Wednesday that the harvest of blue mussels, carnivorous snails and whole sea scallops was prohibited because of elevated levels of paralytic shellfish poison toxin, also known as red tide.

It is still safe to swim, said Gloucester shellfish warden Peter Seminara, as this red tide is different from the type now plaguing Florida and killing fish and irritating beachgoers there.

"This is strictly a harmful bloom of another type," he said of the local red tide, a potent neurotoxin produced by a naturally occurring marine algae. "Filter-feeding shellfish ingest it and it gets concentrated in the meat."

Eating contaminated shellfish is potentially fatal to humans, and cooking does not eliminated the danger.

The red tide — and the shellfishing ban — extends from the New Hampshire border to the waters, tributaries and flats off Amesbury, Beverly, Boston, Danvers, Essex, Gloucester, Ipswich, Lynn, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Marblehead, Nahant, Newbury, Newburyport, Peabody, Revere, Rockport, Rowley, Salem, Salisbury, Saugus, Swampscott and Winthrop. The ares involved are N:1 through N:28.

Seminara said he does not know how long the red tide is sticking around.

"We're looking at a couple weeks at least," he said, depending on how the levels of the toxin rise or fall. Testing earlier this week showed higher levels in Essex Bay than in the Annisquam River.

Fried Essex and Ipswich clams are a specialty for local restaurants, and many, including Woodman's of Essex, have a fallback plan in case reserves run low.

The state is expected to retest for the toxin on Monday, Seminara said, and the results should be announced later in the week.

"There is no testing whatsoever until next week on this subject matter," says a message left Thursday evening by Knovak on Essex's clam flat closure hotline. "So until further notice, all ... clam flats in Essex are closed."

The Essex flats had already been shut down all week due to heavy rainfall.

Staff Writer Andrea Holbrook may be contacted at 1-978-675-2713 or aholbrook@gloucestertimes.com.

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