It was going to be George Vessey’s best year ever. In 1981 Vessey began cultivating mussels in the chill waters at the mouth of the Murray River in eastern Prince Edward Island. Every year since 1983 business had doubled. This month he expected to begin harvesting a crop worth $120,000. But on Nov. 29 federal officials stopped all shipments of P.E.I. mussels after an unidentified toxin in the shellfish sent people
in Montreal and Moncton, N.B., to hospital. By Dec. 10 the toxin had claimed its first victim—Albert Pomeroy, 71, of Montreal—and the next day Health Minister Jake Epp had issued an alert on consumption of mussels, oysters, clams and the larger white quahogs harvested from Newfoundland to Florida. Last week authorities cited tainted mussels as the probable cause of death of two more elderly victims: Bernadette Sampson-Gagné, 84, of St-Jean-Chrysossome, Que., and David McLaughlan, 82, of Scarborough, Ont. By week’s end, there were 115 confirmed illnesses and two people still in intensive care. Then, authorities battling to control the health crisis reported a victory.
After an intensive search, scientists said that they had identified the toxin. Known as domoic acid, it is thought to originate in a rare seaweed called Chondria. However, officials said that the discovery may not help people who are suffering from shellfish poisoning. “This is but one phase of the whole picture,” said Sol Gunner of Health and Welfare Canada. “Just getting the name doesn’t solve all the problems.”
Meanwhile, the health department ordered potentially tainted products removed from store shelves and counters across Canada. In Prince Edward Island, fisheries officials bulldozed hundreds of tons of mussels and oysters beneath the red clay. As mussel and oyster growers watched, some of them asked whether their budding industry could survive the shock. Said Ross (Johnny) Young, Prince Edward Island’s minister of fisheries: “Only three weeks ago our industry had a brilliant future. Now, nothing.”
Critics said that federal officials had hurt the industry by overreacting, particularly by broadening the health alert from P.E.I. mussels to all Atlantic mussels, oysters, clams and quahogs, when there appeared to be little evidence of danger outside the P.E.I. group. In Ottawa, Liberal fisheries critic George Henderson urged the government to compensate producers—and demanded Epp’s resignation. The minister refused both demands—but his colleagues said that the 48-year-old Manitoba Mennonite was shaken by the controversy. Said one Tory backbencher: “Epp is tremendously upset by this. He’s being set up as a murderer, when in reality he’s Mr. Straight.”
A full-scale search for the toxin was launched shortly after the poison alert on the four kinds of shellfish was announced on Dec. 11. By last Thursday night, after an exhaustive search involving dozens of scientists, a chemist with the National Research Council in Ottawa isolated domoic acid as the most likely cause of the poisonings. “We achieved in about 104 hours what in a more normal situation would have taken four or five months,” said Roger Foxall, director of the NRC laboratory in Halifax. The breakthrough was good news for the Atlantic aquaculture industry. But with three people dead, it seemed clear that the health crisis was far from over.
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