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Safe seafood: Properly sourced products are fine to consume

September 13, 2018
Lehigh Acres Citizen

Red tide, blue-green algae, fish kills in the thousands.

What's happening in Southwest Florida waters has taken a toll on the region's tourism, economy and ecosystem.

A question many Southwest Florida residents may be asking themselves is: Is the seafood here is 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 doesn't mean what's 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," said David Keen, purchasing director for Merrick Seafood, a wholesale and retail supplier based in Cape Coral.

For example, grouper is one of, if not the most popular fish to consume in the area.

Keen said that a lot of grouper that wholesalers seek out is caught in deep waters and that, although it is still a local product- caught in Gulf waters-it's 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," added Keen.

Merrick has ties and relationships with many local boats, as Keen said they want to help the people who work hard here in Southwest Florida.

The local fisheries have certainly taken a hit, with Keen getting requests from customers for fish not found here 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," said Keen. "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 these 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. They buy 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," said Keen. "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 local restaurants that are 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 owner and operator of Merrick, Patrick Krieg, encourages customers to ask questions- that they'd 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.

For Krieg, apprehensiveness among residents across the area concerning seafood consumption has definitely hurt his businesses, including the Fish Tale Grill, located right next door to Merrick's market on Southeast 47th Terrace.

"It's been significant," Krieg said of the impact. "Probably down over 30 percent from last year."

Many of Merrick's wholesale accounts are beach destinations and places that have seen cancellations skyrocket because of the issue.

Krieg has been educating his regulars and other customers on the fact that their seafood is safe to eat.

He hopes the other residents of Southwest Florida do the same.

"I would strongly recommend that people educate themselves," he said. "Don't believe everything you read. Go to the source. Wherever that may be that you're buying your fish from or dining out. Ask the questions. If they can't answer to your satisfaction, then it's understandable you might be a little leery. But definitely ask questions, and trust your local suppliers."

Krieg hopes that by the time season comes around, people will be properly informed.

It's no secret that Florida thrives on tourism, and the water quality issues are affecting many, many businesses.

"We appreciate everyone's support. Our local customers have been great. And even the tourists that are still around are asking the right questions to get the level of comfort that they need," Krieg said. "We just need more people in the doors down here and all over."

On Fort Myers Beach, red tide and related fish kills have impacted beachfront businesses as beach-goers have steered clear of the usually popular destination or opted not to buy fresh seafood.

Trico Shrimp Company out of Fort Myers Beach has seen at least a 50 percent drop-off in business from last year, according to owner/operator Christine Gala.

"Our sales have dropped drastically in the retail market," she said. "Even when we tell customers it's OK, they're still not sure.

Gala said that their fishing boats go out 100 miles or more offshore, where there is no red tide, to catch their shrimp.

"We're catching in Tortuga and Key West," she said.

Gala said that the majority of their shrimp goes to a processor in Tampa to be checked for quality by an FDA inspector.

Their location on Fort Myers Beach is also constantly visited for regulation compliance.

"We get inspected about every two months," Gala said. "By the city, county, state and federal agencies."

She is discouraged that no one is really coming to the beach, and that recently, conditions have been improving.

"You could smell the red tide before. It's not nearly as bad now as it was in prior months," she said. "There's no more dead fish washing up."

The restaurants in the area have been hit hard, she said, adding the local places they source to are not buying as much product from them as before.

"Our shrimp are fresh, caught far off shore in the Keys, where the water is clear as glass," Gala added, ensuring that Trico's product is safe for consumption.

As for local water quality for fishing, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission, there is still high concentrations of red tide on shorelines stretching from Sarasota to Lee County as of Sept. 7.

Their prediction models show not much change heading into next week.

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

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," said Dr. Eric Milbrandt, marine laboratory director for SCCF.

Those who enjoy seafood should not be doing their own harvesting, at least not here.

"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," added Milbrandt. "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."

Reasons such as this, make it vital that you know where your seafood is coming from, officials said.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj



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