By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Go to a restaurant and the clam on your plate can be traced to its source, from the very body of water it was plucked. Washington is among the nation’s leading producers of shellfish, including oysters, clams, and mussels. Such mollusks are filter feeders that pump water through their systems, absorbing particles like algae for their food source.
During summer, algae blooms and warm temperatures may increase the amount of toxins and bacterial growth, which doesn’t harm shellfish, but can be harmful for humans. The commercial shellfish industry operates on federal and state guidelines established by the National Shellfish Sanitation Program and Department of Health.
Under these regulations, restaurants, markets, and food purveyors selling legally procured shellfish must be able to present commercial tags that list harvest location and date. An interactive map featured on the Department of Health website will further substantiate whether shellfish were harvested from safe waters.
Illegally procured shellfish, however, proves to be a bigger problem for officials like Wendy Willette, a detective with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to harvesters who have harvested during closed season on a closed beach with signs telling them not to harvest shellfish. It tells them that you shouldn’t eat this, it could kill you. And their excuse is, ‘Oh, I’m going to cook this. It will be fine,” said Willette.
Marine toxins and bacteria like vibriosis can rise to dangerous levels during the summer, making shellfish unsafe to consume and causing mild to lethal poisonings with symptoms as foreboding as its names: paralytic shellfish poisoning that starts with mild numbing in the mouth and leads to paralysis, amnesic shellfish poisoning which ranges from nausea to short- or long-term memory loss, or diarrhetic shellfish poisoning which gets its namesake from its most unpleasant symptom.
“You can’t cook the toxins out of these. The toxins are not destroyed by cooking or freezing,” said Willette.
Willette and her colleagues advise the community to always check prior to harvesting if a beach is approved and open for recreational harvest through a 24-hour shellfish safety hotline and information provided by the Washington Department of Health.
However, the threat to shellfish safety goes beyond the well-intended, but perhaps uneducated public. Washington’s lucrative shellfish industry has quickly given way to a shellfish black market. In the cover of night, undercover investigators from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife track individuals on a beach that they suspect to be harvesting and selling shellfish illegally.
In one of many videos gleaned from surveillance cameras, Willette watches a truck pull up to the back of a restaurant, a restaurant owner emerges and purchases a bag of clams with cash. Through a swift transaction that happens in a matter of minutes, untraceable black market shellfish harvested off closed or polluted beaches infiltrate a heavily monitored commercial market and onto the plates of the general public. It is a scenario that Willette says has taken place with small markets, in both fine dining and casual restaurants, and among community groups.
“We had drug users with prior arrests digging clams from a closed beach, a beach we knew was unsafe. So they would pick those clams and sell them in places that were not typical for shellfish. For example, you would have a Vietnamese travel agency that would buy clams and sell them to community members. We had several nail salons that would buy clams and distribute them among themselves or take them to their churches,” said Willette, recalling past cases.
Transparency in the shellfish trade not only hold sellers and restaurants accountable, but plays a large role in public safety by allowing officials to track toxic shellfish to its source and allows medical professionals to provide faster, more effective treatment for those suffering symptoms.
Willette and her team work tirelessly to combat the growing illegal shellfish trade, but states that ensuring transparency lies most in the hands of consumers.
“Have some educational tools in your pocket. You have a right as a consumer to ask to see that shellfish certification tag,” said Willette.
“If you suspect that your particular establishment may not have purchased that product safely, I would ask to see the tag. Know what you’re looking for on that tag, including the date of the harvest and where the shellfish are from. If you want, you can pull up the Department of Health on your phone and check and see if that beach was open when that tag was created,” she said.
For more information on safe shellfish harvesting and consumption, visit wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish, and the state’s 24-hour hotline at 800-562-5632.
Tiffany can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.