July 21, 2008

Lobster Eaters Told to Avoid Tomalley


State health officials are urging lobster eaters to avoid the greenish innards known as the tomalley because of risks of shellfish poisoning.

Health officials for years have advised against eating the tomalley, the lobster liver some regard as a delicacy. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reiterated its advisory Friday, however, after some lobster livers tested positive for high levels of toxins caused by large blooms of red tide algae.

But health and fisheries officials stress that the advisory applies only to the lobster tomalley, not to the meat.

"Lobster meat is very safe to eat," said Dr. Dora Ann Mills, director of the Maine CDC.

"We ran some tests on meat to make sure, just in case people ask, 'How do you know?' and the meat was perfectly clean," said Darcie Couture, who heads the state Department of Marine Resources' biotoxin monitoring program.

Harvesting of mussels, clams and other shellfish has been prohibited along some areas of the Maine coast in recent weeks because of dangerous levels of the naturally occurring algae. Eating shellfish contaminated by red tide can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning, an illness that can result in death.

Maine's DMR has an extensive monitoring program to ensure that all Maine shellfish sold on the commercial market by certified dealers comes from areas deemed safe for harvesting.

Three people recently fell ill after eating shellfish they collected in an area that DMR had closed because of red tide. Mills said those cases underscore the importance of buying shellfish from a certified dealer or carefully heeding the state's closures when collecting shellfish.

This is the first time potentially toxic levels of red tide have been detected in lobster livers, however. Red tide toxins were found in lobster tomalley during the last widespread bloom in 2005 but did not reach toxic levels.

The Maine Bureau of Health first issued an advisory against eating tomalley in 1994, and the federal Food and Drug Administration eventually followed suit. Because the liver filters out contaminants in the water, lobster tomalley may contain unsafe levels of industrial toxins, such as PCBs and dioxin.

That would explain why the tomalley would contain higher levels of the toxins produced by the red tide algae. But Couture said it remains unclear why some lobster tomalleys have higher levels than others.

Couture said not all of the lobster tomalleys from the six sampling areas tested in recent days had toxic levels. She speculated that some lobsters might have been feeding in deep shellfish beds where red tide levels are higher.

DMR is expanding its monitoring and hopes to develop a better understanding of what is happening. Canadian authorities also have issued an advisory on eating tomalleys because of red tide, and New Hampshire officials have reported high levels in lobster tomalleys there.

"It's a little bit of a mystery to us, but we are working on it," Couture said.

Maine CDC's reminder about the risks of eating tomalley comes at the height of Maine's tourist season when seemingly every restaurant in the state serves up some variation of the iconic shellfish.

Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, said it should be "business as usual" since there already has been an advisory against tomalley eating in place for years. Asked whether she worries that some lobster eaters could be scared away by the renewed emphasis on tomalleys, McCarron said she hopes people will be well-informed.

"The public has always been advised to enjoy the lobster meat but don't eat the tomalleys," McCarron said.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the red tide bloom, which has gripped much of Down East Maine, may be abating. Although far from guaranteed, that would be welcome news to shellfish harvesters and processors Down East struggling with the large-scale closures.

Couture said she hopes that levels of the toxins in shellfish Down East have crested and will begin to fall. She cautioned, however, that there is still a large amount of red tide in Canadian waters that could affect Maine.

And toxicity scores Down East remain so high that it likely will take some time to reach safe levels.

"It's moving in the right direction, ... but it will probably be a few weeks," Couture said.

For complete listings and maps of shellfish areas closed to harvesting because of red tide, go to www.maine.gov/dmr and click on "Red Tide Shellfish Closures."

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