Local clams are again being served on paper plates and bathed in butter because an expansive red tide has begun to abate, allowing officials to reopen some of the state's most productive shellfish beds.
The warming water has helped dissipate the bloom of single-celled algae that smothered the coast from central Maine to Cape Cod, infecting Boston Harbor for the first time in 36 years. In the last week, some 500 diggers have been able to return to Essex Bay and other bountiful flats on the North Shore, home to the renowned Ipswich clams. Officials yesterday also reopened beds in Plum Island Sound.
"It's a big sigh of relief," said Dave Sargent, the shellfish constable in Gloucester, where diggers were allowed yesterday to return to the Annisquam River after a 50-day ban. "A lot of people were economically challenged by the length of the red tide closures."
State officials expect to open more shellfishing beds in coming weeks if algae levels continue to drop, said Michael Hickey, chief biologist for the shellfish program at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fishery. The algae carry toxins that concentrate over time and can make shellfish poisonous. Beds are reopened when the toxin level dips below 80 micrograms per 100 grams of shellfish meat and continues to decline for 14 days. It takes 250 to 300 micrograms of toxin to make a person ill.
"The bloom is definitely on the wane," Hickey said. "But we want to be sure of two things: that the shellfish are safe and that the beds are not going to be recontaminated."
Other shellfishing areas have reopened on Cape Cod: in Orleans at Nauset Harbor, Mill Pond, and Town Cove, and at Nauset Marsh and Salt Pond in Eastham. Boston Harbor remains closed, but the ban could be lifted soon for commercial diggers with special permits, Hickey said. A longstanding bacterial ban on recreational shellfishing in Boston Harbor will remain in effect.
Many areas that remain closed are deep-water beds of surf clams and ocean quahogs, which are used in chowders and canned soups. It takes those shellfish longer to expel the toxin, Hickey said.
While the red tide has not been as extensive as the outbreak in 2005, it still hurt shellfishing, an industry that earns roughly $6 million a year for local diggers, Sargent said. Three years ago it was easier to find a side job in construction or elsewhere while the beds were closed. The slumping economy made that harder in the past few months, he said.
Now diggers worry that a red tide stigma will linger and discourage diners from ordering local shellfish.
"People really need to feel confident that shellfish are more closely monitored than any other product on the market," Sargent said. "It is a healthy, nutritious food. You are not hearing about [shellfish] recalls like you are hearing about recalls with tomatoes and lettuce."
The impact of the red tide was clear on the menu at Woodman's iconic wood-shingled clam shack on Main Street in downtown Essex. The cost of a fried clam plate ($19.95) and a large order of steamers ($20) both jumped a dollar because shipping charges from uncontaminated beds caused wholesale prices to skyrocket, owner Doug Woodman said.
But it's not just about the price.
"The quality of the clam is better," Woodman said of the local softshells. "We were getting them from northern Maine, but it's not the same, especially with fried clams. Tourists can't really tell the difference, but some of us can."