European Herpes Threatens America’s Oysters

Jul 14, 2019

This op-ed by Mike and Isabel Osinski of Widow’s Hole oysters first appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It’s worth taking very seriously.

Keep Europe’s Sick Shellfish Out of America

By Michael Osinski and Isabel Osinski May 21, 2019 6:59 p.m. ET

European oysters have herpes. It isn’t the virus that infects humans, but OsHV-1 kills up to 90% of juvenile oysters, making it a serious threat to the shellfish industry and ecosystems. Next month, ships full of live European Union oysters will arrive on American shores for the first time in a decade. All will be carrying the virus.

America banned imports of EU shellfish in 2008 because of concerns over norovirus, which can make people sick for short periods. In November the U.S. eased the ban, allowing Massachusetts and Washington state to trade with Spain and the Netherlands.

Our family runs an oyster farm on Long Island. In March we visited several European farms and were alarmed by what we heard and saw. In Ireland farmer Thomas Galvin pointed to a pile of dead oysters and said: “Norovirus is nothing. This is what you don’t want.” Last year Mr. Galvin lost 90% of his crop to OsHV-1. “What is wrong with your country?”

The virus appeared in France in 2008 and has since spread throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand and China. The East Coast of the U.S. has remained free from the virus, but a milder strain has been a recurrent problem on the West Coast for 20 years.

The infected EU oysters are headed for American restaurants, but we see some possible vectors of transmission into our waters. Popular shell recycling programs gather used shells from restaurants and set them with oyster larvae, or spat, and place them in bays to build living reefs. Diners at restaurants built over the water sometimes toss shells overboard, another potential source of infection. I can see four such restaurants from our work dock here. National Geographic reported an English oyster farmer lost 80% of his crop to the OsHV-1 virus after using a piece of French equipment that had been out of the water for several years.

Scientists have detected susceptibility to the virus in Crassostrea Virginica, the oysters we grown on the East Coast. Out west they grow the same species as the Europeans: Crassostrea gigas. Introducing the virulent herpes strain from Europe into West Coast oyster beds would be catastrophic.

We are asking for common sense. No pig, cow or chicken—not to mention a tulip bulb—would be allowed into this country if it were carrying a virus as dangerous as OsHV-1. When we called the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, an aquaculture specialist told us to start a petition. After talking to her boss and industry lobbyists, she informed us that the USDA doesn’t consider oysters animals.

We started the petition anyway, and many of New York’s most prominent chefs and restaurateurs have signed. There is time to prevent a problem instead of reacting to one. Why recklessly experiment in our waters where there is no do-over? “You don’t want OsHV-1 in this country,” says Chris Langdon, a marine biologist at Oregon State University. “Stop it while you can.”

Mr. and Mrs. Osinski own Widow’s Hole Oysters.

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