Cape Town - People have been feasting on mussels which have washed up in their hundreds of thousands on False Bay beaches in recent weeks – but authorities say it isn’t a good idea to eat them.
They cite a red tide, which has been known to contaminate shellfish, but this hasn’t stopped people collecting the delicacy by the sackload.
Local fisherman Godfrey Permall scoffed at concerns that the mussels may be toxic.
He says they wash up every winter – and when they do, he is waiting.
Permall, from Vrygrond near Muizenberg, fills around eight or nine plastic bread packets with the mussels, which he sells for R30 each.
He comes to the beach every day but it is in winter when the ocean’s bounty is most generous and helps put food on the table.
The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Carol Moses said harvesting would be legal with a recreational permit and providing bag limits were adhered to. Individuals can only catch 30 mussels each per day.
But she advised against eating the mussels, saying a red tide from Strandfontein to Smitswinkel Bay had persisted for much of June and the department had limited information on its toxicity.
Department of Environmental Affairs spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said that while no toxicity had been reported, anything dead for an unknown period and for unknown reasons should not be consumed.
Nqayi said the washing up of the mussels was most likely related to the big waves and rough ocean conditions experienced in False Bay.
Terry Corr, the head of education at the AfriOceans Conservation Alliance, believes eating the mussels poses a serious health risk.
He said the sheer numbers of mussels that have washed up from Strandfontein along the coast to Fish Hoek are indicative that something is wrong.
They include horse mussels, which he says are usually found far out and in depths of up to 50m.
“On Friday, sole were washing up on Fish Hoek beach, which isn’t normal. There have also been starfish.
“I was hoping officials would take samples, but there hasn’t been much happening.”
Corr said people could get extremely sick from eating the shellfish, especially if it had been affected by red tide.
He suffered shellfish poisoning two months ago from snorkelling in Simon’s Town and swimming through murky water which had a red tinge.
He doesn’t even eat shellfish but must have swallowed some water.
“I was violently sick and my face, fingers and toes went numb.”
But Moses said the washing up of the shellfish was an annual occurrence in autumn and winter due to stronger groundswells and a change in current strength and direction along the northern shores of False Bay.
Black, blue, brown and ribbed mussels initially attached to any hard surface with their byssus threads, while horse mussels were anchored deep in the sediment by their byssus threads.
Moses said that on the north shore there was limited rocky reef, so the mussels tended to anchor on to any available hard surface such as shells, plastic and nylon fishing line.
As they grew, they developed their own reef, which could only be broken free by the strongest currents and wave action and washed up on the shore, usually in winter.
“The tons of plastics and other debris washed, blown or dropped into False Bay makes it likely that mussel settlement and washout in these sandy areas is probably a lot greater in the present day than it was historically,” she added.
Emeritus Professor George Branch of the Department of Zoology at UCT said that, by chance, one of the world’s “starfish experts”, Chris Mah, was in Cape Town doing research at the Iziko Museum at the time of the “starfish washout” and had concluded that the stranding was a consequence of the heavy seas that had been experienced the week before.
With respect to the mussels, he said the safety would depend on whether there had been a toxic red tide in the area recently and how old the mussels were.
Branch said wash-ups of redbait and deep-water horse mussels were a frequent consequence of heavy seas during storms.