With no end in sight for the Red Tide algal blooms currently plaguing the Tampa Bay area, questions have surfaced concerning the safety of the region’s locally sourced seafood. We spoke with several food safety and marine biology experts about what consumers should know before dining out and how best to avoid fish and seafood that may be contaminated.
Is it safe to eat local seafood during Red Tide?
The short answer is yes. Most of the local seafood sold at markets and restaurants in the Tampa Bay area is fished offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, and the industry is heavily regulated and monitored for safety. Florida grouper and snapper are all fished in areas far offshore nowhere near the coastal algal blooms plaguing the region, said Dr. Steve Murawski, a professor of fishery biology at the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science.
“Generally, the major seafood components are offshore,” Murawski said. “This particular Red Tide is really restricted to the very near-shore area from north of Port Charlotte up to Pasco County, and in terms of sourcing traditional grouper, snapper, scallops … they wouldn’t be affected by this.”
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, storebought seafood and seafood served at local restaurants can be considered safe to eat because it’s been monitored and tested prior to distribution.
However, consumers should be wary of seafood recreationally harvested anywhere in Tampa Bay and near the affected Red Tide areas by the coastline right now.
“There’s a large recreational fishing component in this region and people eat what they catch,” Murawski said. “That part of consumption is really being shut down.”
If you’re unsure about the safety of recreationally caught seafood in the area, check for advisories from the Department of Health.
Is it safe to eat a fish that’s washed up on the shore? What if I cook it?
“We get these calls all the time (asking), ‘Is it safe to eat a fish that’s washed up on the beach?’” Murawski said. “No, it is not. It died for a reason. Red Tide is a neurotoxin — that neurotoxin does not go away when the animal dies.”
Another common misconception is that cooking fish will eliminate any toxins and make it safe for consumption, but that’s not the case with Red Tide, said Dr. Razieh Farzad, an assistant professor of food science at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences who specializes in aquaculture and seafood science.
“When we talk about food safety or seafood safety in general, people think that if they cook their food, it’s going to be safe,” Farzad said. “But in the case of marine biotoxins, cooking is not going to get rid of that. So if you are recreationally fishing — use common sense.”
What types of fish or seafood are most affected by Red Tide?
“When we look at Red Tide toxins what we’re really worried about is shellfish,” said Dr. Keith Schneider, a professor in food science and human nutrition at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It’s a fat-soluble toxin so it tends to end up in the fatty tissues of many marine animals, particularly the ones that filter-feed.”
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Red Tide toxins accumulate the strongest in the bodies of shellfish, in particular clams, oysters and mussels. As with other fish and seafood, diners can rest assured that commercially available shellfish at restaurants and in supermarkets are being sourced from areas not affected by Red Tide.
The shellfish-growing waters are monitored closely by the state’s Department of Health, and any area affected by Red Tide has been closed to recreational fishing and aquaculture operations.
Other Florida oysters, clams and, this time of year, scallops that come from regions along the gulf coast are perfectly safe to consume, as long as there is no Red Tide reported in the area. A good rule of thumb is to check where the shellfish you’re consuming has been harvested before eating it.
How can I tell if I’ve consumed seafood tainted with Red Tide neurotoxins?
Symptoms can vary depending on how much of the toxins are present in the seafood consumed, but could include some numbness and tingling in the tongue and reversals of sensation with hot and cold, Schneider said.
Some diners might start experiencing respiratory distress like coughing or itchy, watery eyes and think that they’ve eaten tainted seafood, but it’s more likely that those symptoms would be caused by toxins blowing in off the shore and waves from areas affected by Red Tide, Schneider said.
How long after a Red Tide subsides do I have to wait to eat local shellfish?
Local aquaculture operations — water leases where shellfish like clams and oysters are harvested — have been shut down since June due to Red Tide. Any shellfish harvested illegally in the affected areas are not safe to eat right now. But the good news is that, because of their ability to filter-feed, shellfish like oysters and clams will naturally purge themselves of Red Tide toxins roughly four weeks after a Red Tide subsides and restrictions have been lifted. Once local aquaculture operations are allowed to resume harvesting, their shellfish is safe to purchase and consume, said Farzad.