Dog owners know that their pets tend to pick up things they shouldn’t on the beach – and some things like fisherman’s hooks can be very dangerous.
But after the winter storms of January 2018, over a two-week period, nine incidents of illnesses in dogs were reported, including two fatalities – one in Holkham, Norfolk, and the second at Felixstowe Ferry. The dog deaths occurred following consumption of marine organisms that had washed up on the beaches of the East Coast.
Since then there have been no further incidences recorded, but the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) have been granted £248,892.79 of funding to finance a joint project between the Eastern Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (Eastern IFCA) and The Centre for the Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas), world leader in marine scientific technology who have a base in Lowestoft, that aims to assess and mitigate against the risk of unexpected paralytic shellfish toxins (PST) in eastern England and prevent it happening again.
The project was established as a consequence of Operation Blake, which was the multi-agency response to dog illnesses and deaths resulting from the ingestion of PST- contaminated marine organisms around the East Coast in early 2018. The project will involve laboratory testing of commercial shellfish samples to detect the presence and concentrations of PST, which will be used to inform the monitoring regime and management of commercial fisheries.
With symptoms that indicated paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) intoxication (rapidly developing symptoms including breathing difficulties and paralysis within 1-2 hours), Cefas undertook tests for PST in marine organisms in the area. These were conducted using two chemical detection testing methods, noting that these are only validated and accreditedforbivalveshellfishsamples.
Very high levels of PST were found in starfish from Norfolk and Suffolk, with a toxin profile which had previously not been reported in any shellfish samples. In addition, toxins with the same profile were found in lower levels in crab and flatfish, as well as in post-mortem and vomit samples from one of the dead dogs.
The toxins in question are typically associated with bivalve molluscs such as mussels, clams, oysters and scallops. These are filter feeders and can accumulate PST, which are produced naturally by certain species of microscopic algae. Algal blooms do not usually occur during winter months in the UK and the routine testing of bivalve molluscs in early 2018 was negative for PST. As such, the source of the contamination is still unknown and requires continued investigation.
So the next question must be – are we humans safe to eat local shellfish?
Since the initial incidents were reported, 115 samples of various marine organisms from around the East coast have been collected and tested for PST. Since receiving the funding, Eastern IFCA have continued to collect monthly samples of brown shrimps, common whelks and edible crabs. These samples have been tested for PST by Cefas, with all tests so far indicating no evidence for levels of PST in commercial shellfish that could cause intoxication in consumers.
The project will run until August 2021.