Seafood sleuths go viral to keep B.C. oyster farmers shucking

Three new studies announced to protect and bolster oyster farming in British Columbia

By SeaWestNews

Seafood sleuths are set to embark on three new studies to figure out what is causing oyster-related illnesses in British Columbia.

Several outbreaks from 2015 to 2018 have resulted in severe cases of gastroenteritis, and serious viral or bacterial infections including noroviruses and Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp), posing risks to human health, and damaging the industry.

Noroviruses are highly contagious and are the leading cause of non-bacterial, acute gastroenteritis in humans, an illness that usually includes diarrhoea and/or vomiting. Vibrio parahaemolyticus (Vp) is a naturally occurring marine bacteria also known to cause illness.

Both pathogens can be transmitted to humans through the consumption of raw or undercooked oysters.  

“B.C. oyster farmers work hard so people can enjoy our seafood locally and around the world, and multi-agency partnerships and research will help that continue,” said B.C. Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.

The Ministry of Agriculture and Genome British Columbia (Genome BC) are funding the three projects that will broaden Canada’s ability to identify strains of norovirus and Vp and positively change the way shellfish-related illness outbreaks and food safety investigations are handled.

Genome B.C. in a statement said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), and the University of British Columbia (UBC) are collaborating with other partners on two of the projects that will develop tools to support food safety investigations and illness outbreak management, limiting economic impacts on the industry.

Specifically, these two projects will help to;

  • reduce the number of oyster-related illnesses through improved detection of Norovirus and Vp, leading to improved outbreak response;
  • support timely identification of contaminated products for food safety investigations, limiting the scope of recalls, and broad harvest area closures; and
  • evaluate if post-harvest handling procedures are impacting the levels of Vp bacteria in oysters. This will help to determine the most effective preventive measures for the oyster industry;

The third project, being led by Vancouver Island University’s Dr. Tim Green and the BC Shellfish Growers Association, will focus on norovirus in the environment, to identify the source, dispersal mechanisms and persistence of norovirus in Baynes Sound, the leading oyster producing region in B.C.

“This investment is an important step forward in ensuring that BC oysters are safe for human consumption and that oyster farming in BC is better protected,” said Dr. Pascal Spothelfer, President and CEO of Genome BC.

“BC’s seafood industry and government agencies are direct partners on this project so implementation will be swift and significant.”

Oyster sales in BC represent about half of the shellfish aquaculture industry, approximately $30 million.

Currently, the only outbreak control measure is shutting down oyster farms resulting in millions of lost dollars and employment for hundreds.

Image courtesy of Fanny Bay Oysters