SARASOTA, Fla. (WFLA) — As red tide continues to impact parts of the Tampa Bay area, researchers at Mote Marine Laboratory are hard at work on a tool that will help individuals in the shellfish industry.
Whenever red tide blooms are severe, shellfish farmers brace to cease operations until further notice under direction from the state.
“We can’t pull any of our product, any of the clams or oysters, or anything like that that we are growing. Essentially, we have no income coming in for that period of time,” said the owner of Great Florida Shellfish Tom McCrudden. “Years ago, we were closed for eight months. It can go a very long time, and it is devastating to members of the industry, and the farmers, who are producing this product,” he continued.
McCrudden said many farmers along Florida’s southwest gulf coast have thrown in the towel over the years.
“There are a few holding on, hoping that we can turn this thing around,” said McCrudden.
Scientists with Mote hope they can help.
“We asked, ‘what are your issues and how can we help’ and they just talked about the fact that they can’t monitor themselves. What happens is the state comes out and does that, but with all the shellfish farmers that we have in the state, it is very difficult for that agency to be able to monitor all the time. There is just not enough personnel and there’s not enough time,” said Mote Marine Laboratory senior scientist Dana Wetzel.
Using funding from the state, NOAA, the USDA and others, the team at Mote developed a prototype of a field test that would allow shellfish farmers to self-monitor their products. It looks similar to an at-home COVID test.
The test would allow farmers to keep track of the level of red tide toxins in their shellfish and when they reach a threshold below where the state would require closure, they could reach out to FWC officials to come back out, re-test, and hopefully give them the green light to get back up and running.
McCrudden says every day makes a difference and this technology could be a breakthrough for the industry that has been dwindling due to red tide impacts.
“We need to ensure that we have a testing system that enables us to make sure the product is safe for the consumers. So what we are hoping is going to happen with this testing unit that they just developed, this biosensor is going to allow us to ensure that even if the red tide has come and maybe passed through, and they purged it out, that the product is safe to eat,” said McCrudden. “It still has to pass through the FDA and the regulatory agencies which could take several years, but at least we are moving in that direction,” he continued.
Though it works, Mote is still fine-tuning the test, which is still a prototype. They are working to make it more robust so anyone who uses it can ‘pick it up and get good results’. They are also working on a project involving depuration, or the flushing out of toxins.
“We have been working on the techniques of taking shellfish, putting it in a recirculation system with clean water and seeing how long it takes for those toxins to purge out of the oysters, and what level of concentration of toxins in the shellfish tissue is too high to even try and do that,” said Wetzel. “It is sort of hand in hand mitigation strategies. These two strategies, we think, is going to make a big difference.”
“They (shellfish farmers) are just a part of the fabric of Florida and we need to support them and I think we try to do that,” said Wetzel.