Samish Bay shellfish growers are bracing themselves for a two-month oyster harvest closure due to the contaminant vibrio parahaemolyticus and a series of related illnesses.
Following the state Department of Health's announcement Monday that shellfish from the bay was the confirmed source of one illness and a possible source of three others, Taylor Shellfish Farms and Blau Oyster Co. were looking for ways to keep their employees busy and sales up until the harvest ban expires Sept. 30.
For small operations like Blau where oysters are the primary product, not being able to sell them may force the business to close its doors for the rest of the summer.
Owner Paul Blau hopes to secure an exemption from the state to sell shucked oysters marked with a warning label, which he said he did last year in order to maintain some sales and keep his crew intact.
With an exemption, sales would still take a hit because of the number of people who prefer live oysters, Blau said. But without it he'll have no choice but to close.
"We'd just have to shut the operation down and hope we have enough funds to survive through the next two months," he said.
For large growers like Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has several facilities throughout Puget Sound, the closure is not expected to put much of a dent in overall sales.
"It will impact our sales from that farm and our employees that work on that farm," spokesman Bill Dewey said. "(But) from an overall sales standpoint, it won't have that big of an effect."
Clam, mussel and geoduck harvest will continue, and the farm is looking for other tasks to keep workers busy, like planting new oysters, preparing for the company's seed sale set for Saturday, and doing maintenance in the shellfish beds during low tide, Samish Bay Farm facility manager Irene Fadden said.
Taylor's will also continue to offer oysters at the farm, which it will bring in from other locations.
It was uncertain Monday whether the company would have to let any of its workers go for the remainder of the season, Fadden said.
While the sun glistened off of the water, the store and outdoor picnic area at Taylor's were lively with lunchtime visitors from around Western Washington and parts of Canada.
Some customers were eating oysters that had been harvested prior to the shutdown — some barbecued, others raw.
"You can sell them and tell (customers) to cook ‘em, but you can't guarantee that they'll do it," Fadden said.
That's why the state sets a limit of four possible illness incidents within 30 days before cutting harvest completely, she said.
Dave and Lesley Doolan of Chilliwack, British Columbia, stopped in at Taylor's during their summer vacation.
It wasn't the first time they walked out of the shop with a bag full of oysters that Dave Doolan plans to eat raw — and it won't be the last.
Doolan said it's the best way to eat them, and he's done it for years and never gotten sick.
As of Monday morning, Health had received 13 reports of sickness. All but one were traced back to Puget Sound commercial growers.
Until the commercial harvest ban expires, the state agency is working to educate restaurants that serve Pacific Northwest shellfish to be more selective in the number of growers' products they serve each day, which can help narrow down the source when sickness is reported, said Cari Franz-West, health service consultant for the Shellfish Program.
Bacteria and biotoxins flourish during warm weather, increasing the likelihood that infected shellfish could sicken consumers. The state's Office of Shellfish Protection urges recreational and commercial consumers to always check water quality before harvesting, chill shellfish immediately and refrain from eating them raw.
Dewey agrees, and said the Samish Bay farm was just getting ready to harvest during its last lowtide series, which is sometimes referred to as "a perfect storm for vibrio."
"It's going to be hot, sunny weather with these low tides where there's really the potential for the bacteria to proliferate," he said. "People should be aware of that if they're out harvesting oysters recreationally.
"Just to be safe, they should be cooking oysters and not eating them raw in this hot weather."