Shellfish Safety 101

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]ossessing an innate instinct to protect her natural wonders, Mother Nature is capable of delivering a powerful punch when threatened. Utilizing her unique array of resources, she keeps her defenses up, always prepared to unleash her wrath at the most unexpected moments. Unfortunately, I learned this lesson the hard way. Her retaliation resulted in a visit to the emergency room, multiple trips to a wound care specialist, and 3 months of intensive antibiotic therapy.

It all began one glorious, hot and sunny Florida morning in a mangrove swamp. While my husband, Skip was doing some angling in the flats, I pulled on my aqua socks and ventured into an oyster bed sandwiched between mangrove trees. As the tide went out, a hidden path had revealed itself. It promised an abundance of oysters and Quahog clams. Captivated by its remote beauty, I felt as if I had stumbled across a hidden treasure trove. Anxious to fill my bucket with fresh shellfish, I gathered a large assortment of Quahogs and was moving on to oysters when it happened.

A slight slip in the mud, a little stumble to the right, and an oyster shell had sliced my ankle open. It happened so quickly, I didn’t realize the extent of my injury until I noticed the pool of blood surrounding my leg. It was then that I saw the gaping wound on my ankle, leaving the bone exposed. Acting as a numbing agent, the cold water had masked my pain. I did the only sensible thing I could think of; applied pressure on the wound, held the skin together, and then shouted for help. I was a quarter of a mile from the shore, the waters were full of sharks, and I was leaving a bloody trail behind me.

Always keeping a vigilant eye on his wife, Skip ran to the rescue. Wearing leather combat boots, he was prepared to confront the lethal oyster shells. Skip carried me out of the swamp and drove straight to the emergency room. Apparently, Mother Nature had provided her own sentries to guard my secret path that day. Her front line of defense was an organized platoon of razor sharp oyster shells!


Native American Indians have made use of their cutting-edge potential for centuries. Taking advantage of an oyster shell’s serrated, ridged edges, the Calusa or “Shell Indians” utilized them as tools, weapons, and spear- heads. Known as a brutal, war-like tribe, they also used oyster shells to construct deep moats for protection during battles. Oyster shell’s varied uses are still seen in current survival training courses throughout coastal communities. Students are taught to make the most of their environmental resources, utilizing oyster shells as spears for fishing, hunting, and cutting palm fronds for shelter.

Perhaps the oyster shell’s most frightening weapon in its arsenal is the aquatic, bacterial infections associated with shellfish wounds. Florida’s waterways offer a bona fide smorgasbord to choose from. A vast array of these bacterial infections are resistant to antibiotics and attack the soft skin tissue surrounding the laceration.

The “bacteria du jour” for me was Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This is considered an opportunistic pathogen, found in numerous marine environments. Difficult to treat, it proved to be resistant to multiple antibiotics. It also resulted in a bad case of cellulitis with dead tissue surrounding the wound. Another widely publicized bacteria found in Florida’s waterways is the infamous Flesh Eating Bacteria. In 2013, Florida experienced an outbreak, triggering warnings that spanned the coast line. Typically contracted by consuming raw oysters, this bacteria may also enter the body through open wounds while swimming or enjoying other aquatic activities.

As I sit here writing this article, my leg is elevated and my ankle remains wrapped in gauze. I am still healing from my tangle with that notorious oyster shell. It has been a long road to recovery and Mother Nature has taught me some valued lessons. Will I venture back into that mangrove swamp again in search of Quahog clams and oysters? You bet! However, I can guarantee that I will be wearing protective footwear, covering my ankles and mid-calf area. I will also have a solid walking stick to aide with stability and balance while I slosh through muddy canals and slippery oyster beds. I would also recommend that if you have any kind of open wound or laceration, delay your trip until it has completely healed! Bacterial infections are nothing to mess around with. So, with the abundant shellfish season now upon us, take joy in your day on the water, and remember to be mindful of these safety tips.

In spite of my injuries, we enjoyed our dinner of Quahog clams that evening. Succulent and sweet, they are superb in a white wine reduction sauce served over a bed of pasta. Perhaps next time oysters will also be on the dinner menu. Bon appetit!