North Carolina coastal waters have long been known for their plentiful shellfish. The Shellfish Sanitation Program is conducted in accordance with the guidelines set by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference contained in the National Shellfish Sanitation Program Guide For the Control of Molluscan Shellfish Model Ordinance. The NSSP is administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is based on public health principles and is designed to prevent human illness associated with the consumption of molluscan shellfish. Sanitary controls are established over all phases of the growing, harvesting, shucking, packing and distribution of fresh and fresh-frozen shellfish.
The Shellfish Sanitation Section is responsible for monitoring and classifying coastal waters as to their suitability for shellfish harvesting for human consumption. Recommendations are made to the Division of Marine Fisheries to close those waters that have the potential for causing illness and opening those that are assured of having clean, healthy shellfish.
Shellfish include clams, oysters and mussels. Shellfish are filter feeders, and pump water through their gills almost constantly. Through this pumping action, shellfish are able to gather food particles, but they also take up any bacteria, viruses or other pollutants that are present in the water. If shellfish that contain high concentrations of bacteria or viruses are consumed raw or undercooked, they could cause severe illness in the consumer. Therefore, it is mandatory for shellfish to be harvested only from approved (open) shellfish waters.
All shellfish growing areas are surveyed every three years to document all existing or potential pollution sources, to assess the bacteriological quality of the water, and to determine the hydrographic and meteorological factors that could affect water quality. Water samples are collected at least six times a year from each growing area and tested for fecal coliform bacteria, which are an indicator that human or animal wastes are present in the water.
In addition, reviews of bacteriological data and pollution sources are conducted annually. This information is then used to classify each shellfish growing area as either approved, conditionally approved, restricted or prohibited. Approved areas are consistently open to shellfishing, while prohibited areas are permanently closed.
Conditional areas are generally open to shellfishing, but can be closed after a significant rainfall event due to the resultant runoff. The area will then remain closed until water sampling indicates a return to acceptable bacteria levels. An area's status can change quickly due to temporary closures after rainfall, high results during bacteriological sampling or unexpected pollution events.
Shellfish harvesting waters which are open or approved for harvesting are those where harvesting is permitted anytime. Areas which are conditionally approved mean that shellfish harvesting is permitted except after rainfall events which exceed the area's management plan. Runoff from such a rainfall can carry bacteria into surface waters from adjacent land. Information about which areas have conditional closures and which conditional closures are in effect can be found by calling 252-726-6827.
To learn more about the classification of shellfish growing areas, call the Shellfish Sanitation Section at 252-726-6827.