High biotoxin levels have closed north Whatcom County beaches to shellfish harvesting. The recent closure of north county beaches is due to an increase in Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) biotoxin in the most recent samples. In response, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) downgraded the recreational biotoxin closure from Butter and Varnish clams only to a closure of all shellfish species. Beaches from Sandy Point north to the Canadian border including all of Point Roberts are now closed to the harvest of all species of molluscan shellfish.
South Whatcom beaches have remained closed for all species since May. Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP) biotoxin remains elevated in southern Whatcom County. This includes all beaches south of Sandy Point including Lummi Bay, Portage Bay, Bellingham Bay, Chuckanut Bay, and all of Larrabee State Park.
Molluscan shellfish include clams, mussels, oysters and scallops. Algae that contain marine biotoxins cannot be seen and must be detected by laboratory testing. During a biotoxin event, mussels and varnish clams usually contain the highest toxin concentration. Butter clams and varnish clams often retain toxins long after other species are safe to eat.
PSP and other naturally occurring biotoxins are not destroyed by cooking or freezing.
Crab meat is not affected, but “crab butter” and crab entrails can harbor biotoxins so they should always be discarded.
Biotoxin levels can change rapidly. Shellfish harvesters are advised to “Know Before You Dig.” Always check for current biotoxin and pollution closures at the DOH website: https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/biotoxin/biotoxin.html or call the DOH Biotoxin Hotline at 1-800-562-5632 before harvesting shellfish anywhere in Washington State.
Whatcom County Health and Community Services will continue to monitor biotoxins in molluscan shellfish. We will notify the public when there is a change in biotoxin levels that may affect public health.
Shellfish sold in restaurants and retail markets have been tested before distribution and are safe to eat.
PSP biotoxin can cause severe illness and death. Symptoms include numbness and tingling of lips and tongue, which may begin within minutes of eating toxic shellfish or may take an hour or two to develop. Symptoms may progress to tingling of fingers and toes and then loss of control of arms and legs, followed by difficulty in breathing. Some people feel nauseous or experience a sense of floating. If a person consumes enough toxin, the chest and abdomen muscles become paralyzed, including muscles used for breathing, and the victim can suffocate. Death from Paralytic Shellfish Poison has occurred in less than 30 minutes.
DSP is a marine biotoxin toxin produced by the dinoflagellate Dinophysis. DSP causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Diarrhea is the most commonly reported symptom.
Learn more about marine biotoxins here: Marine Biotoxins | Washington State Department of Health.