Changing Climate Concerns with Food Safety: Shellfish in Virginia

As the changing climate continues to challenge our planet, a most noticeable impact has affected our coastal waters. Ocean water temperatures are becoming warmer. Accordingly, aquatic life is threatened. 

We are seeing the negative impacts firsthand in the commonwealth of Virginia, where the greatest volume of oysters on the east coast is harvested and sent all over the world. With Virginian shellfish aquaculture generating more than $53 million per year, the Virginia Department of Health (VDH),, stands vigilant for the continued protection of the industry. Not only is the Commonwealth the top producer of hard-shell clams in the US, it also yields high numbers of mussels. Should ocean water temperatures continue to rise, shellfish growth will be in decline and the industry will be threatened.

Brought on by warmer waters, increased occurrences of Red Tide and algae blooms are most disturbing. Coupled with more outbreaks of infectious diseases in seafood (shellfish in particular), including a Virginia water closure already this year due to oyster-associated norovirus illness, the threat to human health is exacerbated. For example, Vibrio, a bacterium which commonly lives in seawater, has caused numerous episodes of contamination in oyster fields. Consuming raw, infected oysters transfers high Vibrio levels to the human body, making people sick. CDC estimates that over 50,000 human cases of illness per year in the US come from shellfish poisoning.

The Virginia Department of Health has placed shellfish safety and water quality as a top priority – as it should be. Next, we need strong support from the governor’s office for reconciling this important economic driver for the Commonwealth. Only when all partners including government align, can we begin to reverse the ‘tide’ of climate change in our waters.

Leon F. Vinci, DHA, DAAS, RS is a long-time member of the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) and an active member of their Climate Change Committee. He participated in the Climate for Health Ambassadors Training at NEHA’s 2019 Annual Educational Conference. The training will be offered again at the NEHA 2020 AECRegister today to reserve your spot. 

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