British Columbia

Norovirus threatens health of oyster industry, farmer says

Shellfish farmer Steve Pockock expects his industry to take a financial hit, if the outbreak of illness linked to raw oysters continues.

Cause of outbreak still unconfirmed

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control is advising people not to eat raw or undercooked oysters to reduce the risk of being infected with norovirus. (Tourism PEI)

 A shellfish farmer expects his industry to take a financial hit, if an outbreak of norovirus linked to raw oysters continues.

Steve Pocock, who operates Sawmill Bay Shellfish on Read Island, says the impact on business has been small since the outbreak was first reported in early December.

"As an industry we've probably supplied between 20 and 30 million oysters over that period," Pocock told On the Island host Gregor Craigie.

But sales will fall following last week's health warning for consumers to cook oysters thoroughly, he said.

About 80 per cent of B.C. oysters are sold for raw consumption, Pocock said.

"It's particularly worrying for us, because we've got the Chinese New Year coming up here in the next week and Valentine's Day next month," he said. "Those are traditionally busy periods for us."

Oysters can become contaminated with norovirus as a result of raw sewage in the water. ((Ted S. Warren/Associated Press))

The norovirus link to oysters was identified after an outbreak of illness among people who attended an oyster festival in Tofino in November.

Since then, pockets of oyster-related norovirus have occurred from Vancouver Island to the Fraser Valley.

Source of norovirus unknown

Pocock said health officials with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the industry still have not pinpointed the specific cause of the illness.

People affected by the outbreak reported eating raw or lightly-cooked oysters at home and in restaurants, according to the BCCDC. 

A working group including the BCCDC and oyster producers is scheduled to meet this week to seek more information.

"We're pretty upset about it really because we pride ourselves on a healthy clean product," Pocock said.

Hardship, layoffs for farmers

"We certainly hope this doesn't persist, because a drop in sales will eventually mean layoffs for employed people and hardship for oyster farmers."

Anyone who becomes ill with diarrhea and vomiting after eating shellfish is asked to call BC HealthLink at 811.