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Safe seafood: Properly vetted products fine

By Staff | Sep 17, 2018

Red tide, blue-green algae, fish kills in the thousands. What is happening in Southwest Florida waters has taken a toll on the region’s tourism, economy and ecosystem.

A question many residents and visitors may be asking is: Is the local seafood safe to eat? The answer is yes, provided it comes from a source that complies with consumer protection regulations.

Catching fish in red tide areas can present health risks that should not be taken lightly, but that does not mean what is being served on plates at restaurants, or available at local seafood markets, is an unsafe product.

“It’s definitely something to be concerned about, but with the federal regulations, HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) inspections and the FDA inspections that we have, we’re very confident that all of our products are safe for our customers. That’s for sure,” David Keen, purchasing director for Merrick Seafood, a wholesale and retail supplier based in Cape Coral, said.

For example, grouper is one of the most popular fish to consume in the area.

Keen said a lot of grouper that wholesalers seek out is caught in deep waters and, although it is still a local product – caught in Gulf waters – it is not “throw-a-line-off-the-dock” local.

“Our guys, when they go out fishing, they’re going out 90 to 100 miles for that (grouper). It’s the same grouper that you’ve bought for years and decades,” he said. “Being a wholesale distributor, you need to make sure that you’re on the forefront of everything that’s coming out. Where are you getting it from? How is it getting processed?”

Merrick is taking the same precautions with its shellfish, as they are filter feeders and have a much higher probability of contamination.

“The company that we were dealing with that was local (for clamming) has actually moved up north in the Panhandle, where there is none of that algae or red tide,” said Keen.

Their oysters are sourced locally as well, but from Gulf waters extending off of Texas and Louisiana.

Waters are always tested in various areas where shellfish are harvested, with officials making sure the water quality is in line with Florida Department of Agriculture regulations. For local product, there is a strict criteria and in-depth report system that has to be completed before it can be sold. This happens before the fish even leave the boat.

“What we have to do is fill out reports saying where they caught the fish and what waters they were caught in. They have to be caught in certain waters and documented at what depth they were caught. How were they caught? Fishing reel? Bandit reel? Long line? All of that has to be traced,” Keen said. “They take samples out of a reasonable amount of fish and all of that gets checked before it even comes off the boat.”

All of Merricks suppliers are HACCP certified, complete with letter of guarantee that they are in regulation with applicable FDA laws.

Merrick, a primary supplier to numerous area restaurants, then gives its wholesale customers the same letter of certification to ensure that their products are in compliance with the guidelines as well.

“It’s not worth it for me to endanger my customers and jeopardize all of this with an unsafe product,” Keen added.

Merrick has ties and relationships with many local boats, as Keen said they want to help the people who work hard in Southwest Florida. The local fisheries have certainly taken a hit, with Keen getting requests from customers for fish not found domestically, when in reality the products coming from these businesses are A-OK.

“Yes, we all understand it’s hurting our local seafood industry, and it’s going to,” Keen said. “But we’re going to survive and we’ll all push through. But, the biggest thing we need to do is educate people and say, ‘Look, eat your seafood. It’s still good.’ We’re buying out of the Keys, we’re buying out of the Panhandle. And it’s still a great product.”

Though the boats may be docked in tainted waters, the product they bring back comes from hundreds of miles north, around the Panhandle and far south to the Keys. The FDA constantly has its thumb on the pulse of the waters and would shut down contaminated areas if needed.

“The FDA puts these regulations out for us to follow. Whether there was red tide or algae here or not, we still have to follow them. We always have followed them. They shut down areas all the time, and they would shut more down if they weren’t safe,” Keen said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t eat seafood.”

Local fisheries are not the only source Merrick has as its disposal. It buys seafood from all over, including Hawaii, South America and Trinidad, to name a few. But supporting the local crews that go through the ringer to provide a high-quality fresh product is the way to go, he added.

“A lot of these products are easy to be able to go down to the Keys, easy to go up to the Panhandle, to grab the same exact product,” Keen said. “It’s all coming out of the Gulf, it’s all the same exact product. Just a couple hundred miles this way, couple hundred miles that way.”

Merrick supplies its products to 250 restaurants throughout Southwest Florida, meaning there are hundreds of restaurants serving fresh quality seafood that need not worry about their customers coming to dine.

“The chefs know, the owners know, the GMs know. We all have to go through training, we all have to sign contracts. There’s a law to it. The FDA is on top of it,” Keen said. “Obviously the waters around here currently aren’t safe. But around our area is perfectly fine. Red tide is not reaching all the way up to the Panhandle. The Keys, Maderia Beach, all have much larger fisheries we can source from.”

Getting Southwest Florida residents, as well as potential tourists, informed on the steps and regulations Merrick and other fish markets have to go through to ensure a safe product is what Keen thinks is most important.

“The education is the big thing. Know that we’re following all the rules, we have a great product. Our wholesalers know, our customers know, now we just need the public to know,” Keen said. “You can come in and eat fish great fish especially here.”

Keen, as well as the owner and operator of Merrick, encourages customers to ask questions – that they would be more than happy to inform anyone on their acquisition processes and safety regulations.

“Ask your local fishmonger, they know what they’re doing,” Keen said.

On Sanibel, Timbers Restaurant and Fish Market has felt the results of the red tide outbreak, having a drop in business around 35 to 45 percent since mid-to-late July, according to Mark Blust, vice president of marketing and operations.

“We have felt the effects of the red tide, continuing into a dismal August and September,” he said. “Our loss of business seems to be in line with a majority of the island.”

Blust is confident that all Timbers products are safe for consumption, with the products being sourced from unaffected areas.

“Grouper, snapper and other Gulf selections are typically caught 50 to 100 miles offshore and therefor not affected,” he said. “Fin fish such as sword(fish) and tuna come from the Atlantic side.”

For shrimp, they are working off of last year’s harvest and are sourcing others from the Texas side of the Gulf, said Blust.

The local pink shrimp season runs from November to April.

Timbers get gets oysters and clams from the Cedar Key area or from beds located from the Panhandle to Texas, according to Blust.

“Oysters and clams are rarely sourced this time of the year due to warm water and runoff from heavy rains, which can raise bacteria counts,” he said.

This is why Timbers needs look elsewhere to find a safe quality product.

Blust said it has been a bit more difficult recently to locally source seafood, and that he has been having to secure selections from different areas.

All of Timbers’ crab products are imported from other areas, Blust said.

“What will be interesting is how it may affect the upcoming stone crab season,” he said.

Blust said he has an educated staff who would love to talk with customers about their processes to ease their nerves about the quality of their product during this uneasy time for consumers.

“We have signage to ensure our customers know that we are committed to their safety by offering only products that have come from approved or inspected sources,” he said. “And we have an educated staff that is able to convey these messages.”

As for local water quality for fishing, there were still high concentrations of red tide on shorelines stretching from Sarasota to Lee County as of Sept. 7, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. Its prediction models showed little change heading into the next week.

“The red tide poison, brevetoxin, concentrates in shellfish, so harvesting is closed during blooms,” Rae Ann Wessel, natural resource policy director for the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, said.

The FWC has closed oyster harvesting in public reefs since July 1, and it remains closed until the end of the month.

“Oysters are definitely a concern because they live in the bays and filter feed and can accumulate the brevetoxin for a while after the red tide has dissipated,” Dr. Eric Milbrandt, marine laboratory director for SCCF, said.

Those who enjoy seafood should not do their own harvesting, at least not locally.

“If people eat shellfish that has been in red tide they will get sick,” Wessel said. “In some cases, people have died. Cooking does not affect brevetoxin, it remains toxic.”

“Red tide toxin does not get into fish filets as far as has been tested and what is known by scientists. However, you should not eat any fish that appears to be dying,” Milbrandt added. “I would say that the scientists would want to test every fish tissue before it is sold. However, that would be prohibitively costly. Most of the populations of commercially harvested fish are not close to the coast, where red tide blooms are concentrated. Generally speaking, red tide historically has been patchy and therefore having limited effect relative to the population of a fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Official said reasons like this make it vital that the public knows where its seafood is coming from.