August 31, 2012 — NMFS proposes to re-open a portion of the Georges Bank Closed Area to the harvest of Atlantic surfclams and ocean quahogs. The area has been closed since 1990 due to the presence of toxins known to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The proposed re-opening is based on a request from the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council and the recent adoption of a testing protocol into the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.
The Georges Bank (GB) Closed Area, located in the Exclusive Economic Zone east of 69°00’ W. long. and south of 42°20’ N. lat., has been closed to the harvest of surfclams and ocean quahogs since 1990 due to red tide blooms that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP).
The closure was implemented based on advice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after samples tested positive for toxins (saxitoxins) that cause PSP. These toxins are produced by the alga Alexandrium fundyense, which can form blooms commonly referred to as red tides, or harmful algal blooms, and can produce toxins that accumulate in water column filter-feeding shellfish. Shellfish contaminated with the toxin, if eaten in large enough quantity, can cause illness or death in humans.
Due to inadequate testing or monitoring of this area for the presence of PSP-causing toxins, the closure was made permanent in 1999, under Amendment 12 to the Atlantic Surfclam and Ocean Quahog Fishery Management Plan (FMP). Since the implementation of the closure, NOAA’s National Ocean Service has provided grants to the FDA, the states of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and a clam industry representative to collect water and shellfish samples from Federal waters off southern New England.
NMFS has also issued exempted fishing permits (EFPs) since 2008 to surfclam and ocean quahog vessels to conduct research in
the closure area. Testing of clams on GB by the FDA in cooperation with NMFS and the fishing industry under the EFPs demonstrate that PSP toxin levels have been well below the regulatory limit established for public health safety (FDA 2010).
The FDA and NMFS also developed a Protocol for Onboard Screening and Dockside Testing in Molluscan Shellfish that is designed to test and verify that clams harvested from GB are safe. The protocol was formally adopted into the National Shellfish Sanitation Program at the October 2011 Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference.
On June 30, 2010, NMFS published a similar proposal in the Federal Register (75 FR 37745) to re-open a portion of the GB Closed Area. This proposed rule was later withdrawn due to public comments that opposed re-opening the GB Closed Area without having a testing protocol in place. Now that the protocol has been formally adopted, NMFS is proposing to reopen a portion of the GB Closed Area with the requirement that the protocol be used on all fishing trips into the area.
Three areas are being considered for re-opening. To allow the industry to access as much of the area as possible and to generate public comment on all options, NMFS is proposing to reopen the largest of the three areas (Alternative A). The Alternative A area reflects the largest area that was previously permitted for sampling under an EFP, and the other alternatives areas are smaller subsets of the larger Alternative A area.