Last weekend I was delighted to join thousands of fellow seafood fans at the Boston Seafood Festival – an annual event which celebrates the bounty of the New England seafood economy. This year I was honored to appear at the opening ceremony at the gracious invitation of Senator Bruce Tarr of Gloucester. It was an opportunity for me to recognize the robust partnership that the Department of Public Health has established with the Massachusetts seafood industry, and how our work together plays an integral role in the Department’s overall commitment to food safety in the Commonwealth.
The responsibilities of public health are wide-ranging when it comes to ensuring the safe production of seafood landed in Massachusetts. Given that Massachusetts is one of the nation’s leading seafood producing states, the production and distribution of safe and healthy seafood is one of our primary concerns. For instance, our Food Protection Program licenses and inspects all wholesale seafood operations in Massachusetts—in 2013 alone, we conducted 504 inspections related to seafood and shellfish. Massachusetts industry and public health leaders were among the first in the United States to help develop and promote the use of Hazard Assessment Critical Control Point Plans to enhance seafood safety.
The Department of Public Health has also been involved in special projects with industry partners. One of these projects – the Dockside Testing Program – has allowed for economic growth in the industry while enhancing the protection of the food supply at the same time. The program, which began in 2011, is a unique public-private partnership that allows the harvesting of surf clams and ocean quahogs in federal waters which have been closed to shellfishing. Under the Dockside protocol, extensive testing is conducted prior to landing surf clams, and samples are collected for lab testing before clams or shucked meats are released into the marketplace.
In 2013, nearly 600,000 bushels of surf clams and quahogs were landed through the Dockside Testing program. As more vessels participate in Dockside, demand for local services that support fisheries—such as wholesale seafood operators, metal fabrication for boats and equipment, and boat repair—has increased. The initial program created more than 100 new jobs, and supported the construction of an additional value-added processing operation in New Bedford, the largest shucking operation in the country.
We are proud of the success of the Dockside Testing Program, and continue to seek out similar opportunities for engagement with the industry. For example, the Northern Temporary Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning Closure area was recently reopened to harvest of bivalve mollusks, such as surf clams and ocean quahogs. DPH is currently working with other agencies to re-open the area for the harvest of gastropods and roe-on scallops as well.
In the meantime, public health officials and the local seafood industry continue to address a range of impacts associated with climate change and weather variability. One such challenge is the emergence of vibrio parahaemolyticus, a pathogen typically found in oysters harvested from warmer waters that can cause human illness. In 2012, the number of diagnosed cases of vibrio related to oysters cultured in Massachusetts doubled from just one year before. And just last summer, Massachusetts had to close oyster beds in Duxbury and Martha’s Vineyard due to vibrio – the first time this has ever happened in the state.
I know that oysters cultured in Massachusetts are renowned for their flavor and quality. With the emergence of vibrio, it is critical that public health officials prioritize protection of the health of our consumers, and the safety of the products we sell. But we also need to respond to economic impacts to the industry and develop plans that would allow for these impacts to be reduced.
In preparation for this summer, the Department of Public Health worked with our colleagues in the Division of Marine Fisheries industry to develop a Vibrio Control Plan that protects public health with significant input from the state’s oyster industry. Aquaculture is increasingly significant to Massachusetts’ coastal economy: according to the Division of Marine Fisheries, oyster landings in 2013 included over two and a half million live pounds at a value of nearly nine million dollars. As part of the Control Plan, DPH also partnered with the Department of Agricultural Resources to provide education and training to harvesters and wholesale dealers in a series of workshops held during the spring. The Department also provided trainings to local boards of health on how to respond to vibrio. We are fully aware of how essential partnership with industry will be to ensure that the plan—and this summer’s harvesting season—is successful.
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