Another major oyster theft reported in Dennis, MA; officials issue warning |

Another major oyster theft reported in Dennis; officials issue warning

EAST DENNIS, MA – A series of oyster thefts from offshore aquaculture grants has led officials to warn food establishments, particularly raw bars, about serving unregulated shellfish. 

About $40,000 in oysters and equipment has been stolen from the 1-acre shellfish farms on the tidal flats off Crowes Pasture since early last month – the latest early Tuesday. On top of the financial hit for shellfish farmers, the thefts raise questions about loss of control over a food that's tightly regulated for safety. For example, shellfish farmers must tag each bag of oysters with the time and date of harvest. 

“Harvesters and wholesalers have requirements for oyster handling,” said Dennis Health Director Terence Hayes, who was drafting an advisory Tuesday to food establishments. “Both the harvesters and wholesalers have to sell the oysters with tags on them. When we do food inspections at restaurants, we check for those tags.” 

The state Department of Public Health has instituted stiff regulations for handling oysters to prevent the foodborne illness caused by a bacterium called Vibrio parahaemolyticus, Hayes said. When ingested, vibrio causes diarrhea often with abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, fever and chills. Usually these symptoms occur within 24 hours of ingestion and last three days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Massachusetts regulations, called the Vibrio Control Management Plan, are enforced through close monitoring by local shellfish constables.

Oyster harvesters are required to put the oysters on ice as soon as they are harvested. Receiving dealers must make sure the oysters are cooled to 50 degrees Fahrenheit in a refrigeration unit no later than 10 hours after they are harvested. 

William Zammer, who owns four restaurants on the Cape, said any reputable restaurant owner checks for tags when purchasing shellfish. “You'd be a fool to use oysters that aren't tagged with dates,” Zammer said.  “They'll have to take those oysters out of state,” he said referring to the thieves. But Aaron Brochu, who owns the Big Rock Oyster Co. and lost about 10,000 oysters from his Crowes Pasture grants Tuesday, argued that it wouldn't be difficult to fool a buyer. The tags are easy to get, he said. “You can buy them at the stores or even online,” he said. “They could just take the oysters down to New Bedford.” He is frustrated that the culprits remain at large. “They have to be doing it at low tide and in the dark,” Brochu said. “I'm surprised they're so hard to catch.”

The first of the raids took place the week after Memorial Day when five shellfish farmers lost a total of about 10,000 mature oysters. Last week, James Ward, whose grant is next to Brochu's, lost 40 plastic cages and 12,000 mature oysters. He calculated his loss at about $10,000. Brochu, who oversees two 1-acre grants, has 12 employees who depend on his operation. “I'm their full-time job,” he said. 

Christopher Southwood, the Dennis shellfish constable, said several state agencies have been notified of the thefts. The Harbormaster's Office plans to patrol the Crowes Pasture area more heavily, he said.

When contacted by the Times, the state Department of Public Health's deferred comment to the state Division of Marine Fisheries and the Massachusetts Environmental Police. The fisheries division did not respond to Times inquiries on Tuesday.

Amy Mahler, spokeswoman for the Environmental Police, issued a statement that the agency has had “four reports in 2013 of stolen oysters (from the Cape) and/or associated equipment from private oyster farms. We are actively investigating in cooperation with local authorities.”

Diane Murphy, an aquaculture specialist with the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant, said shellfish farming is fraught with threats from predators in nature. “It's particularly disappointing to lose oysters to human theft,” Murphy wrote in an email. “Farmers in the intertidal zone typically tend their oysters during low tide but are most vulnerable during low tides at night when thieves are active.”

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