Oysters are cleaning up parts of St. Jerome’s Creek

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By Richard Pelz
Special Correspondent

Larry Jarboe asked me to start writing about oysters. Specifically, he asked me to get the facts out there. My knowledge comes from having commercially grown oysters in the Chesapeake Bay for over 25 years.   Larry and I both believe oysters are the key to the Chesapeake Bay’s recovery and there is a lot of misinformation about oysters, the ecology around them and how and when we can enjoy them.  That time is now! So let’s start!

In an Article by Guy Leonard in the County Times published on September 2nd Guy quotes “officials” from the Maryland Department of the Environment as saying that commercial harvesting of shellfish in St. Jerome’s Creek is still an iffy proposition. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is only one commercial shellfish operation on St. Jerome’s Creek and I can say based on the first-hand knowledge that those oysters are safe.  I run the operation.  Circle C has been working hard on cleaning up our part of the Creek for 20 years and we have been very successful.

Chesapeake Bay Oysters are safe to eat. There are no records of anyone having died from eating shellfish out of the Chesapeake Bay. .. ever zero..  nada… none.  You may have heard rumors to the contrary you can believe them or you can check with the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and Maryland and Virginia state health departments.  I did. No deaths period zilch.  In addition to that Circle C oysters are among the safest on the bay because everyone on our staff has extensive certified training in food safety and we take care of our product.

Guy Leonard also quotes Roy Feders President of the St. Jerome’s Neck Home Owner’s Association as saying “residents had concerns about the safety of the creek’s waters and possible pathogen (Vibrio parahaemolyticus  Vp) transmission into shellfish like oysters and clams because of its proximity to the bay.”  and there are signs warning against harvesting shellfish.  This is where the confusion really starts.

This is what happened in regard to the Vp bacteria.  Earlier this year Sam Sayers was infected presumably by Vp when he scraped his leg on some rocks on the shoreline of the Chesapeake Bay near St. Jerome’s Creek. It is important to note that this was an injury related infection because there is a major difference between swallowing Vp and getting it in a wound.  In a wound, it can be very dangerous.  In your stomach, it is another matter.  If there is enough of the bacteria Vp can give you a nasty case of Montezuma’s revenge that usually lasts a couple of days.  Not pleasant but highly unlikely it will kill you.

Oysters sometimes consume Vp when it is in the water.  This bacteria can swim.  Swimming is a must to get from one barnacle to the next.  So an oyster can suck it up in route. When an oyster eats this bacteria it destroys itThings that are eaten usually do not survive the experience.  Secondly, oysters contain a surprising antibiotic.  It kills both graham negative and graham positive bacteria.  Vp is a graham negative bacteria. The bacteria’s death is not instantaneous so there can at times be some live bacteria in the oyster.  If oysters are properly iced down immediately after harvest the bacteria dies.

Rocks around here are not usually sharp. However, barnacles which attach to them are.  This is probably where Sam’s infection came from.  Vp is a wild bacteria that lives by eating chitin.  Chitin is what makes up the shells of crustaceans like blue crabs, shrimp and yes, barnacles.  Vp problems usually occur in warm water in the summer.

It goes to hibernate with the crabs when they burrow into the bottom during cold weather.  You need to seek immediate medical attention if you get a cut or puncture that becomes infected in bay waters.  Do not dither you could lose a finger or worse.

            Now for the second part.

MDE has the power to classify commercial shellfish areas. Please note they do not have any control over the private use of shellfish.  MDE has posted signs warning against the harvesting of shellfish in some areas of St. Jerome’s Creek.  These postings are totally unrelated to Vp it is a legal issue.  MDE does not routinely test for Vp.  They have only tested for it once in the 20 years I have been on the Creek.

St. Jerome’s Creek is known as a riparian rights creek.  All of the shellfish in the creek belongs to someone.  They may not be harvested by the public or commercial fishermen unless they have the written consent of the owner.  Commercial harvesting is prohibited in the areas that are posted. DNR Natural Resource Police have the authority to arrest anyone who breaks these laws.

The 3 Maps show the progress Circle C has made in cleaning up the area we ranch while the rest of the creek has unfortunately gotten worse.  Notice the dates on the maps.  When Circle C first got started raising oysters in St. Jerome’s Creek state officials were considering closing all of it to commercial harvest due to water quality issues.  They gave me 20 years of data showing a downward trend.  On the newer color maps, the gold dots represent the locations where MDE takes water quality samples.  Blue designates areas they judge to be safe for commercial production of shellfish.  Red areas are the sections they have closed.

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