UPDATE – Tainted oyster fears costing Miss. over $1.4M

Published 8:34 pm Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Fears of tainted oysters are taking a toll on the industry in south Mississippi as an area of oyster beds is closed for investigation of a virus that caused 11 illnesses and two recalls in other states.

So far, closing oyster Area 2-C off Pass Christian on March 17 means an estimated revenue loss of more than $1.4 million, said officials at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

The reefs, which cover a large area, are believed to be the harvesting ground for oysters that now have been recalled by health officials in Virginia and Tennessee.

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MDMR fisheries official Joe Jewell says the reefs will remain closed until an assessment is completed.

Last Friday, Virginia issued a recall for the Mississippi oysters after linking them to a norovirus that struck 11 people in Chattanooga, Tenn. All had been diners at a local restaurant selling the oysters. Officials are warning that consumers not eat raw oysters from Area 2-C until the reefs get clearance after an ongoing inspection period.

Norovirus is a gastrointestinal illness that causes a number of symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, low-grade fever, chills and headaches. Symptoms usually appear within 48 hours of exposure to the virus, and the illness lasts one or two days.

The virus can be spread in a number of ways, from pollution at the oyster harvesting site to being tainted in a restaurant by a food handler who has the virus.

Jewell says MDMR may never be completely sure how the virus was spread.

The problem involves oysters harvested in the western Mississippi Sound between Feb. 24 and March 17.

Scott Gordon, director of MDMR’s shellfish program, says a testing program includes pollution surveys, water samples and tissue samples examined from oysters in the reef area.

Oyster season peaks around Easter.

At the Pass Christian Harbor, row after row of oyster boats sit idle.

Oystermen Jim Workman and Daniel Rosendale decided to use their downtime to make repairs to their boat.

“There’s no income, there’s no money to be made right now. The money that we’ve got, we’re just holding onto and we’re just getting by. It’s messed up for a lot of people. This is how a lot of people make their living right here,” Rosendale said.