Photo courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sag Harbor and Upper Sag Harbor Coves have been closed for the harvesting of shellfish until further notice. This news came after the state discovered a marine biotoxin in the coves last week. The toxin — saxitoxin — can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.
On Thursday, April 26 The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed the 490 acres of the coves and their tributaries west of the Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter Veterans Memorial Bridge.
According to DEC officials, the decision to close the area to shellfishing came after the toxin was discovered in shellfish collected from a monitoring site in Sag Harbor Cove.
In addition to shellfish, residents are also prohibited from harvesting carnivorous gastropods like conch as those creatures feed on shellfish and may also have accumulated the toxin at levels that are hazardous to human health.
According to a spokesperson with the regional office of the DEC, Aphrodite Montalvo, the toxin discovered in Sag Harbor Cove is a neurotoxin produced by a naturally occurring algae such as Alexandrium, a marine dinoflagellate that is often attributed to the notorious red tide.
The species is most commonly found in environments with high nitrogen levels.
In the last year, both Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister and Dr. Christopher Gobler, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, have presented findings showing that the increased density of residential development across Long Island has spiked nitrogen levels in waters leading to both red and brown tides.
Earlier in April, DEC closed areas in western Shinnecock Bay as well as Northport Harbor and parts of Northport Bay for the harvesting of shellfish for the same reason. Those bodies of water remain closed.
According to Montalvo, the DEC will test shellfish in the coves sometime this week. Following guidelines from the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP), Montalvo said the DEC will need to produce three clean tests on shellfish in Sag Harbor Cove over a two week period before it can open the area to shellfish harvesting again.
Areas that have tested positive for toxins, added Montalvo, are sampled weekly by the DEC. Currently, said Montalvo, the DEC has 18 monitoring sites around Long Island set up each early spring before algae blooms are expected to occur. Those stations are tested weekly until the blooms decline, which usually happens in late June or early July depending on the temperature of the water.
The DEC also receives oyster samples from two aquaculture facilities for regular testing, said Montalvo.
For the many families raising oysters in Sag Harbor Cove, Montalvo said that during the closure residents should be mindful that shellfish that take in the algae can accumulate enough toxin in their flesh to be harmful if consumed with the potential to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. However, she added that being filter feeders, once the algae bloom dissipates the shellfish will filter the toxin out of its flesh as it takes in clean water and will be safe for consumption over time.
In its news release last week, the DEC said it would re-open areas to shellfishing as soon as possible based on the results of further testing. For updates on the closure, call the DEC’s hotline at 444-0480 or contact the DEC’s main shellfishing office at 444-0475.