How Can Shellfish Be Saved? St. Johns Tries to Find Answers

Article excerpt

ST. AUGUSTINE -- An announcement last week that bacterial

contamination will close between 10 and 15 percent of southern

St. Johns County's shellfish beds has raised questions about

where the pollutants are originating and what can be done to

protect the resource.

In testing the Intracoastal Waterway, environmental managers

have identified increasing concentrations of fecal coliform, a

bacteria found in human and animal waste. Now, they want to

bolster that testing to better understand what is behind the

upswing.

Fecal coliform is a potential carrier of pathogens that can

cause infections or other illness in those who eat

bacteria-saturated shellfish.

And while the waterborne levels of the bacteria are nowhere

near the levels that would restrict activities like swimming,

they are a cumulative problem in shellfish. Shellfish act as

super filters, processing huge amounts of water in search of

food, then retaining bacteria like fecal coliform.

In Florida, shellfish beds are being slowly invaded by the

contaminants that render the delicate meats in oysters, clams

and mussels inedible. Around the state, about 1 percent of the

beds are lost each year, say state environmental monitors.

For example, shellfishing in Duval County has been closed

since 1993. There are no areas open in Nassau County. In fact,

between the Georgia border and Volusia County, only St. Johns

County has waters approved for the harvests.

Chris Benjamin, intergovernmental coordinator for St. Johns

County, said that to find answers, agencies including the

county, the St. Johns River Water Management District and the

state Department of Environmental Protection are working on a

plan that would increase water sampling.

In addition to closing the waters to shellfish harvesters who

have long used the waters for a livelihood, the increasing

contamination points to a larger issue, Benjamin said.

"It's a pretty good indicator of water quality," said

Benjamin. "That's why it is important."

Stormwater runoff, septic tanks and boaters who dump waste

into the water have been identified as sources of the bacteria

in waters around the Matanzas Inlet. But because massive

development has not hit areas like southern St. Johns County,

environmental managers are perplexed about why contamination is

increasing.

Benjamin said agencies could take over some of the testing to

allow the state to begin sampling untested waters like those to

the south in Flagler County.

Intensive water surveys conducted throughout rising and

falling tide cycles could be used to build computer models that

would give a clearer picture of what is happening, Benjamin said.

"We would probably jump into the hot spots we know of," he

said. "We'd try to identify what we call the plume."

That plume, a footprint of where bacteria is at certain times

of a tide cycle, could help identify the sources of the

pollution.

"This is a creative approach and I am looking at it

positively," said Robert Thompson, an environmental

administrator with the Department of Environmental Protection.

But, he said, there is a problem with expense.

The same approach was considered in Hillsborough County but

abandoned because of cost, he said. …