- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 4, 2005

BOSTON (AP) — One of New England’s worst red tides in decades expanded southward this week, rounding Cape Cod and forcing some of the region’s most prolific shellfish beds to close.

About half the state’s shellfish beds have been closed to fishermen since the toxic algae bloom appeared in waters off Maine last month and began spreading southward.

“It’s spreading,” said state shellfish biologist Michael Hickey.

First, shellfish beds as far north as New Hampshire were closed. Then, on Thursday, officials closed highly productive flats in the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, off Chatham, Mass.

It’s the worst red tide to hit Massachusetts since 1972, when the state enacted a blanket closure of all shellfish beds, said Don Anderson, a red tide specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The algae that causes red tides off New England’s coast is not the same as that growing in the waters off southern states like Florida, which causes noxious fumes, shuts down beaches and poisons sea life.

Scientists say the northern algae contaminates only shellfish, making them unsafe for animals and humans to eat. Swimmers, fish and popular seafood such as lobster or shrimp are not affected. Scallops also are not affected because people don’t eat the part that absorbs the poison.

Mr. Anderson said shellfish that reach market are safe because testing standards are rigorous.

But retailers and shell fishermen say prices could rise if local beds are shut down much longer and the state’s shellfish industry, with an annual wholesale value of about $24 million, sees its catch drop.

Rob McClellan, a Wellfleet, Mass., seafood retailer who also raises quahogs and oysters, said many shell fishermen likely will not be affected for the time being, because they dug up the bulk of their catch for the Memorial Day holiday.

But if new clams reach market size while the red tide keeps clam flats closed, businesses will take a hit, he said. “If it does drag on four to six weeks, that’s going to hurt,” Mr. McClellan said.

Terry Cellucci, owner of J.T. Farnham’s Seafood & Grill in Essex, Mass., said publicity about the algae bloom has dampened demand for clams, keeping prices down.

But with the Fourth of July weekend being the busiest time of the year, Miss Cellucci anticipates a major price increase over the next month. In the meantime, she’s telling customers that her clams, which come from Maine, are safe.

The toxic algae, called Alexandrium, is called red tide because it colors the water a rusty color at extremely high concentrations, Mr. Anderson said. Each year, a bloom of the algae moves from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Ann, off Boston’s North Shore.

Usually, the wind isn’t right to push it westward into Massachusetts Bay, but this year, strong east and northeast winds, including two May nor’easters, blew in a particularly heavy algae bloom that flourished in the Bay’s warmer waters.

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