Shellfish Industry

Connecticut stays on guard against toxic algae blooms

Emily Van Gulick prepares a sample for examination under the microscope.
Emily Van Gulick prepares a sample for examination under the microscope. Photo: Judy Benson

Article by Judy Benson

If you’re a Connecticut shellfish farmer, your ears might perk up a bit when you hear the term HABs – harmful algal blooms.

Toxic HABs outbreaks, sometimes referred to as “red tide” or “brown tide” because of the discolored water that can occur along with it, have caused recent shellfish bed closures around the country, including states neighboring Connecticut.

Connecticut has remained relatively sheltered from HABs thus far, but there have been sporadic, rare closures in isolated portions of the state. So while shellfish farmers and regulators here keep watch for any warning signs just in case, the rest of us can keep enjoying fresh clams and oysters grown in local waters, either from a commercial farm or harvested from certified recreational municipal beds.

“People can eat shellfish from Long Island Sound with confidence,” said Gary Wikfors, director of the Milford lab of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That’s because of the well-coordinated early warning system in place in Connecticut to catch an outbreak of the particular kinds of algae that can sometimes emit toxins harmful to clams, oysters and mussels, and sicken the people who eat them.

Algae, which range from seaweeds to tiny single-celled microalgae (also called phytoplankton), form the basis of the aquatic food chain. Among the thousands of different species, about 100 can contain or emit toxins into marine and freshwater bodies that can cause illness and even death in humans, pets and wild animals. Of these 100, a handful of are of greatest concern in Connecticut waters.

The mere presence of these types of algae isn’t a danger – most of the time a bloom occurs with no release of the toxin. But thanks to constant monitoring, there’s a system in place to respond quickly if that were ever to change. It’s a crucial part of ensuring the continued success of the state’s $30 million shellfish industry.

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