Thursday was Clam Day at the 36th annual Maine Fishermen’s Forum, and the day opened with a session on the state’s efforts to understand the causes and results of the algal blooms that cause red tide.

Department of Marine Resources Director of Biotoxin Monitoring Darcie Couture began the discussion in the Samoset Resort’s Penobscot Bay Room by describing the history of paralytic shellfish poisoning monitoring. Couture said that anecdotal evidence on the phenomenon known as red tide went back hundreds of years, but that records began to be kept in 1954 with regular scientific surveys beginning in the 1970s.

She said two similar conditions in bivalve mollusks, such as mussels, clams, oysters and scallops, existed in other regions and had been detected in areas of Maine.

“Besides red tide, we do have other things to worry about in Maine,” she said.

Couture described the two-part life cycle of the microscopic algae that produce the toxins responsible for PSP. The algae remain dormant through most of the winter, hatching and becoming active in spring.

Maine has a widespread volunteer force that monitors the coast on a weekly basis, sending samples to one of two labs, in Lamoine and Boothbay. Paid staff cover a 5,000-mile route each week in order to reach certain test sites at low tide, when samples are more accessible and give more accurate information.

“Sometimes they’re out there at night sampling with headlamps,” said Couture.

Using federal funding, Couture’s program maintains 45 sampling stations in Casco Bay and 15 in Cobscook Bay, where mussels are placed in the water, enabling staff and volunteers to access the samples without having to drive all along the convoluted coast.

She said red tide began each season at the tip of each of Maine’s many peninsulas, progressing into the bays and estuaries over the course of the summer. Ocean sampling allows testing to provide early data for areas that would otherwise be hard to monitor, she said.

Clams are a $60 million business in Maine.

Misconceptions lead to serious consequences

Couture said an algal bloom in 2009 closed clamflats in 69 percent of Maine for more than 30 days. Toxin levels at that time were 100 times higher than is considered safe, she said. She said red tide was increasing in severity.

In 2007, after 30 years without a reported red tide-related illness, a fisherman brought mussels home from a floating barrel to feed his family. Within an hour of consuming the mussels, all four family members were in the hospital on respirators, experiencing the tingling in extremities, headache, nausea and muscle weakness and lack of coordination that are symptomatic of PSP. The fisherman almost died, Couture said, as the disease progressed toward tachycardia and breathing became difficult.

The following year, a similar scenario played out in Cutler, when a fisherman assumed, in spite of knowing that the area was closed for mussel harvesting, that abandoned fish pens would produce a cleaner product.

In 2009, a third report of PSP came after a man from Swans Island hung a bag of softshell clams off the seaward side of his boat, hoping to purge them of toxins.

Couture said it was wrong to think that the cause of red tide was pollution from on shore that washes into the ocean.

“He was probably increasing the danger,” she said.

Today, Couture said, the algae that cause PSP are showing up in places where they have never been known to occur. The toxins are also appearing in samples of lobster tomalley, herring and summer-harvested shrimp, as well as other fish species.

Funding cuts threaten monitoring and testing

The federal disaster funding that supports DMR’s biotoxin monitoring program will continue to the end of this year and pays for eight contract workers in the field, temporary workers who receive no benefits and are hired as needed. Couture said the contract workers are available on holidays, weekends and state shut-down days, and can be dismissed when the need for them has passed. She said this was very cost-effective and gave her great flexibility to be responsive to industry needs.

Couture said that when the money ran out she would lose half her supply of mice that are mandated for testing, and be left with two conservation aides to do field collection and basic lab work and two scientists to supervise the staff and conduct tests for PSP.

While a 2009 request, from former Gov. John Baldacci for additional disaster funds was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, Couture said that agency had no authority to appropriate funds.

“The next step is for our federal delegation to try to get the funds appropriated,” she said.

Red tide’s causes still uncertain

Couture said that heavy rains seemed to contribute to the intensity of the algal blooms that cause red tide, but did not trigger them.

She said when one monitoring station at the Great Eastern Mussel company facility in Long Cove showed a sudden increase in the toxin, the only change that could be documented was a steep increase in the number of boats that were mooring in the area.

In answer to a question about possible natural methods of mitigating red tide, Couture reminded those present that the algae are one of many phytoplankton species that feed the marine population of the Gulf of Maine.

“If you kill them you’ll kill the good stuff,” she said.

The Maine Fishermen’s Forum will continue through March 5 at the Samoset Resort. For more information, visit the website at mainefishermensforum.org.

The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at sauciello@villagesoup.com.