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Butter clams off limits

Low tides at Freeland Park attracted a number of clamdiggers last weekend in spite of a sign warning against harvesting butter clams. - Gayle Saran
Low tides at Freeland Park attracted a number of clamdiggers last weekend in spite of a sign warning against harvesting butter clams.
— image credit: Gayle Saran

Clam diggers beware. Red tide is here.

With lower tides during the day from March through October, clam diggers are hitting South Whidbey beaches in search of littlenecks, cockles, Manila and butter clams and mussels. Most of the shellfish are safe to consume currently; however, there is an Island Countywide warning for red tide or paralytic shellfish poisoning in butter clams.

Island County's Environmental Health director, Kathleen Parvin, said this week that clammers need to know which shellfish to look out for if they are going to avoid those containing the toxin. Butter clams dig deeper than other clams and tend to be bigger than the others, about 3 to 4 inches across without striations on the shell.

Parvin advises people to call to check on the status of beach closures and specific shellfish before heading out to go clamming. Eating a bad clam can be a death sentence where red tide is involved.

"People are taking their life in their hands if they don't check on whether there is a presence of red tide in the shellfish," Parvin said. "This is a serious matter."

Last week, a number of people were doing just what Parvin recommends against. Though the beach is posted with a sign warning of red tide, several people were still digging the clams. One woman who had dug her limit of butter clams said she had no idea the shellfish were toxic.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is a serious illness caused by eating shellfish contaminated with algae that contains a toxin harmful to humans.

When this algae increases to a high concentration in marine environments, the condition is commonly referred to as a red tide.

"The amount of toxin increases when water conditions are favorable," Parvin said. "However, the exact combination of conditions that cause blooms of poison-producing plankton is not known."

All molluscan shellfish including clams, mussels, oysters, geoduck and scallops can have paralytic shellfish poison. Moon snails and other gastropods

also can become toxic.

Other marine species, such as sea cucumbers, might also be affected. Crabmeat is not known to contain the PSP toxin, but the guts of a crab can contain unsafe levels. To be safe, clean crabs thoroughly and discard the guts.

Paralytic shellfish poison is rarely associated with a red tinge to the water. Reddish coloration of the water is more commonly associated with other, non-toxic organisms.

The symptoms of PSP include tingling of the lips and tongue, which may begin within minutes of eating poisonous shellfish or may take an hour or two to

develop. Depending upon the amount of toxin a person has ingested, symptoms may progress to tingling in fingers and toes and then loss of control of arms and legs, followed by difficulty in breathing.

Some people have experienced a sense of floating or nausea. If a person consumes enough poison, muscles of the chest and abdomen become paralyzed. Death can result in as little as two hours. There is no cure available. The only treatment for severe cases is the use of a mechanical respirator and oxygen.

The butter clam ban will continue until further notice.

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