ORLANDO, Fla. – As the red tide continues to linger in Florida waters, thousands of marine animals have died. And the surviving marine life is exposed every day to the toxins the algae releases as it dies off.
If that’s not hard-hitting enough, blue-green algae is also polluting lakes and rivers across the state with thick slime-like sludge.
The conditions plaguing Florida waters beg the question: Is it safe to eat seafood in Florida right now? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t cut and dried.
Let’s start with the red tide.
Officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission say store-bought and restaurant-served shellfish are safe to eat during a red tide because the government monitors the shellfish for safety, adding that they are often not locally harvested. However, even if they are harvested locally, they are tested for toxins before they are sold.
[Click here to find out if harvesting of shellfish is permitted in an area.]
Florida Today reports the FWC has halted the commercial and recreational harvest of shellfish in the southern parts of the Gulf through at least Sept. 30.
Hard clams, oysters and mussels are another story. Recreational harvesting of the bivalve mollusks, whether from a conditionally approved or approved shellfish harvesting area, is banned during red tide closures, according to the FWC, therefore they should not be eaten.
Most commercially-available Gulf oysters come from the northern edge of the Gulf, far from the red-tide bloom.
Locally harvested scallops are safe to eat if they are from open scallop harvesting areas and you eat only the muscle — not the whole animal.
Caution: Illegally harvested and unregulated shellfish are particularly dangerous, the FWC warns, and they should never be consumed. These include coquina clams and mulluscan predators, such as whelks that feed on toxic bivalves.
As long as they are filleted before eaten, local finfish are safe to eat, according to the FWC. Even though toxins may accumulate in the gut of the fish, they are disposed of when the fish are filleted.
It’s important to note that with any food that may have been affected by the red tide, the toxin cannot be seen or tasted, and cooking it or freezing it will not kill the toxin.
Issues with blue-green algae
Eating seafood exposed to blue-green algae is a little more black and white.
Some local health department officials are warning seafood lovers to think hard before eating fish caught near blue-green algae, which is caused by different types of cyanobacteria. Doing so can pose too great a health risk.
To put it bluntly, Larry Brand, a marine biology and ecology professor, said, “I would not eat any fish caught in this area right now."
And Renay Rouse, a representative with the Florida Department of Health in Martin County, said, “Don’t fish in or around a bloom, and don’t eat any fish caught in or around a bloom.”
What happens if you eat contaminated fish?
Experts say eating red tide-affected fish would cause immediate sickness, while cyanobacteria could present more serious, long-term consequences.
The film “Toxic Puzzle” chronicles the links between cyanobacteria and deadly neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. That link is centered around an amino acid, also known as BMAA.
“BMAA, a neurotoxin, was found in high levels in the brains of dead dolphins which were sampled,” Brand said. “They obviously got it from the fisheries. It indicates you got BMAA in your ecosystem.”
He added that someone who eats contaminated fish may not see symptoms for 10 or more years.
Having said all this, it’s important to understand that “locally caught” seafood isn’t technically local.
A seasoned captain of a St. Augustine fishing boat told Florida Today seafood lovers have more to worry about eating imported seafood than eating “local” shrimp.
“Most of the boats are in Texas for the Texas season right now,” Roger Schmall said. “A handful have stayed here and are fishing the Tortugas. They’re 100 miles south of here — at least — nowhere near the red tide."
Owner of Trico Shrimp on Fort Meyers Beach Chris Gala said diners shouldn’t have any concern for eating Gulf shrimp right now.
“In our market, customers ask every day if it’s safe, and we tell them, ‘100 percent, yes it is.’”