Bad publicity hurts entire Vancouver Island shellfish industry

Many farms ‘down 50 per cent in sales’ following recent norovirus outbreak

A recent norovirus outbreak has taken its toll on the B.C. shellfish industry, but not for reasons one might think.

According to Darlene Winterburn, executive director for B.C. Shellfish Growers’ Association, multiple farms across the province are down 50 per cent in sales due to loss of reputation, regardless of the fact that the illness only came from oysters farmed in central and south Baynes Sound.

“The reason its impacting all of B.C. is because all of the notices and media reports around the disease were very broad sweeping,” Winterburn explained. “They said ‘don’t touch B.C. oysters,’ when the fact of the matter is, that business remains as usual across the province. The illness was in a very tight geographical area.”

She added that smaller farms in particular are being hit the hardest.

“There are many who will not be able to purchase seed, which means they will not have animals to harvest in 18 to 24 months,” Winterburn said.

Larry Hesketh, owner of Summer Breeze Agriculture, a small oyster farm located near Baynes Sound, said even though none of his oysters were carrying the virus, if this sort of publicity happens again next year it could be detrimental to his farm.

“The problem is in the way CFIA does their announcements. They said there’s been 172 sicknesses due to eating B.C. oysters, but they fail to say you can’t get sick if you cook the oysters, and they don’t say it was only coming from a few farms in a tiny area,” Hesketh said. “The CFIA needs to be more specific with their announcements.”

He said even though only four farms in Baynes Sound have been closed, most farmers in that area are now afraid to market their product in case they get closed as well. He added that he has lost thousands of dollars in revenue because of the lack of demand for oysters. “We haven’t been selling for a month and a half now. It’s a real problem.”

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are investigating the illness in the Baynes Sound area to try and pinpoint the source of contamination. In the meantime, four farms in that region have been temporarily closed for cautionary reasons.

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control said there have been about 172 cases of the acute stomach upset between early March and mid April in Canada, and all those who became ill reported eating raw oysters from B.C.

No cases have been reported since last month.

“It looks like the virus spread has stopped, but the damage to reputation and to branding is significant,” Winterburn said. “When you make a sweeping comment that’s across the whole industry, there is an impact. And there is a great deal of uncertainty that comes from clients, as well as the farmers, wondering how do we move forward.”

Winterburn said there are a number of different reasons that could cause the illness, such as vessel discharge, failing septic systems, inadequate waste treatment facilities, or it could be caused from something as simple as someone getting sick off a boat in that area.

“This type of illness only comes from one source though and that’s human beings,” Winterburn said.

Norovirus is highly contagious and causes vomiting and diarrhea that can last for days, which can also lead to dehydration.

She said norovirus can be caught from consuming shellfish because they are “filter-feeders,” and while filtering water through their shell, they can end up with some particles of the virus in their system. So if someone eats an oyster when the virus hasn’t been filtered through yet, they can become sick.

“The oysters are never sick, they can pass those particles through their system. They are just telling us something; that we have to be very careful about what we are putting in to our water.”

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