The worst red tide in perhaps a decade has shut down shellfish beds all along Puget Sound and prompted serious public health worries, state officials said Wednesday.
Expanded beach closures have not reached the heart of Washington state's large farmed shellfish industry, and the state said commercial shellfish on the market have been tested and should be safe to eat.
But industry officials worried that more bad news could further damage businesses already reeling from a separate bacterial outbreak.
The state Health Department said the newest round of beach closures means virtually the entire shoreline from Everett south to the Nisqually River just north of Olympia is off-limits for shellfish harvesting.
The eastern Kitsap Peninsula also has been affected, along with areas near Port Gamble, Port Ludlow and along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, said Frank Cox, a Health Department marine biotoxin coordinator.
"I don't think we've ever had anything quite to this scale," Cox said Wednesday.
Scientists were particularly worried by very high levels of the toxic organisms called Alexandrium, which produce powerful neurotoxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans.
Those organisms are present in blooms of algae that thrive in the warm, calm summer weather the region has seen this year.
The state closes shellfish-growing areas when measurements of the toxins reach 80 micrograms. But many areas are showing levels of 1,000 micrograms or more, with mussels at Port Ludlow in Jefferson County containing nearly 10,000 micrograms.
"There are so many places that are so very toxic," Cox said. "I'm concerned if people ignore these warnings, we could wind up with people with illness, if not worse."
Paralytic shellfish poisoning can be fatal, but Washington state hasn't recorded a death since three people were killed in 1942. The latest serious illnesses were recorded in 2000, when several people were sickened - some even paralyzed - after eating contaminated shellfish near Gig Harbor, Cox said.
Cooking does not eliminate the toxins, and people should be extremely careful when harvesting shellfish on public or private tidelands, officials said.
The large bloom of toxic algae also was worrisome for the state's shellfish farmers, who battled a recall of raw oysters last month after a separate outbreak of vibriosis, an bacterial illness.
Some of the affected harvest areas have since reopened, but the industry is leery of damage to its market from more bad news about shellfish in Washington.
Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish, the West Coast's largest farmed shellfish producer, lost about $150,000 a week in live oyster sales because of the bacterial outbreak, spokesman Bill Dewey said.
Industry officials were watching the newer toxic algae blooms closely, hoping they would stay away from the major farming areas in the northern and southern ends of Puget Sound.
"It'd be a shame if we just got relief from the vibrio to get shut down for red tide," Dewey said. -redorbit.com