State warns about shellfish safety

Action comes after Rhode Island couple got sick

Sunday afternoon's beautiful weather brought clammers - both those with years of experience and those new to the activity - out to the Niantic River. But most were unaware of a bacterial species, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which occurs naturally in brackish and salt water environments and sometimes infects shellfish.

When consumed in raw or undercooked shellfish, the bacteria can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, headache and other symptoms, according to a fact sheet from the state Department of Agriculture. The symptoms typically appear 12 to 24 hours after eating infected oysters, clams, lobsters or crabs, and it can be life-threatening for people with compromised immune systems or those with chronic liver disease.

Although there have been no outbreaks of the illness in Connecticut this summer, the state has decided to take measures to improve education among recreational shellfishers after a potential outbreak in Rhode Island, said Patrick Kelly, a member of the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission.

Kelly said a Rhode Island couple got sick after they caught shellfish, didn't put them on ice and consumed them raw. The couple is currently being tested to determine whether their disease was caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus.

While several of the people clamming in the Niantic River said they had never heard of the species of bacteria, which is in the same genus as the bacteria that causes cholera, they were knowledgeable about the safety measures used to reduce the risk of illness.

Tom Powers of Berlin, who learned to clam with his family when he was 5 or 6 years old, said he would never store shellfish in the live well of a boat. That practice is discouraged because it can result in cross-contamination from other organisms and the temperature can rise, providing an hospitable environment for bacterial growth.

As he stood chest-deep in the river, feeling for clams with his socked feet, Powers said he had never heard of Vibrio parahaemolyticus. He is, however, "not really concerned about it because I've been clamming here my whole life."

The state's Bureau of Aquaculture has been working with commercial shellfish growers to establish safety measures to minimize risk from the bacteria and has been testing for Vibrio parahaemolyticus in shellfish-growing areas, according to a press release from that department.

Wardens and locations that sell permits are also handing out fact sheets on the pathogens.

The concern about the bacteria has increased because "over the last few years, the water temperature has been higher than normal, and when the water gets warm their population grows rapidly," said Kelly. There has also been outbreaks of illness from the bacteria across the Northeast in recent summers.

Don McKenzie of Colchester, who was clamming for the second time on Sunday, said he "wouldn't know" about the bacteria because he's "kind of new to this clamming stuff."

Still, McKenzie said he would never store shellfish in live wells and always puts the clams immediately into coolers or ice buckets.

In addition to keeping shellfish on ice and not storing them in the live well of a ship, the state recommends cooking all shellfish until the internal temperature reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.


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