Fishing for a solution

By: Stacey DeGrasse

My collaboration with fishermen began in 2005, when I was dispatched to New England to test the safety of shellfish harvested from federal waters infested by a type of algae that produces toxins. Shellfish that ingest the toxin are not harmed, but if the toxins reach high enough levels, they can make humans who eat the shellfish extremely ill.

The assignment given to me and three other scientists from the Food and Drug Administration: Determine if it was safe for fishermen to continue harvesting clams and other shellfish in the area without endangering consumers.

The high toxin levels we measured in the ocean areas experiencing the expansive bloom of Alexandrium fundyense algae prompted the closure of 15,000 square miles of harvest area to commercial clam fishermen. While it was gratifying to know we were preventing toxic shellfish from harming consumers, it was heartbreaking to look into the eyes of hardworking fishermen and know what the decision meant to their livelihoods.

Years before, in 1990, another Alexandrium bloom had closed to shellfish harvesting the massive Georges Bank, which begins 62 miles off the coast of New England and extends to Nova Scotia. The additional closing in 2005 plunged the clamming industry into crisis.

At that moment, I became determined to play a role in developing a strategy that would someday allow the fishermen to return to traditional fishing grounds while still protecting the public.

I joined colleagues, including FDA’s Paul DiStefano and Steve Conrad, who shared the same goal. Years of research led to a possible solution. The algal blooms come and go, so perhaps the answer was for fishermen to test the clams as they harvested them at sea. That way, the fishermen wouldn’t spend time and money many miles offshore, only to arrive at the docks for their product to be tested by government officials and discover they had returned with contaminated clams they’d have to pay to discard.

We worked with test kit manufacturers to adapt a test originally designed for lab scientists so it could be used by fishermen at sea. Our efforts simplified the kit. Still, the test took about an hour and a half and required precise steps, including keeping track of standards, samples, reagents, timed incubations and data collection. The fishermen would need to do all of this far offshore, sometimes under extreme conditions.

There was a lot of skepticism. First, how would the fishermen react to listening to days of lectures from a young, academically trained, government scientist? Could they accurately conduct these tests that sometimes even challenge lab scientists?

The fishermen, it turned out, are self-taught scientists eager to learn more in an academic setting. In fact, I soon learned that they have spent more time observing science at sea than I have done with my Ph.D. in oceanography. Their observational skills are keen, and they taught me as much about oceanography as I taught them during training sessions on land and at sea.

They shared with me their empirical knowledge about climatological and environmental effects on algal blooms, declines in clam populations due to temperature increases, and changes in whale behavior – to name a few.

While I enjoyed putting on my foul weather gear and participating in the hard work of dredging and shucking clams and testing them for toxins, the most memorable times came when fishermen told me sea stories. Topics ranged from harrowing events at sea to the most unusual organisms and objects they had pulled from the sea. I realized during those exchanges that we all had one thing in common – a love and respect for the sea and all that it offers.

The training worked. As of this year, a large portion of Georges Bank has reopened to commercial clam fishermen who agree to follow the biotoxin control strategy, which includes taking FDA-training to conduct onboard tests of their catch and submitting dockside shellfish samples for a second test conducted by state authorities.

I came to FDA rather than pursuing an academic position because I hoped my research would have immediate applications. My hopes have been fulfilled; it is extremely gratifying to see that our research has made a positive impact on the economy and on fishermen’s livelihood, while ensuring safe seafood for the public.  

Stacey DeGrasse is a research biologist in FDA’s Office of Regulatory Science, Division of Analytical Chemistry, Spectroscopy and Mass Spectrometry Branch

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