By Tim Loh

The number of people who have fallen ill from shellfish high in bacteria and harvested off Norwalk and Westport this summer is expected to exceed the five currently known cases in coming weeks, as reports that cover the hottest weeks of July are finalized.

The five cases represent the state’s first outbreak of this nature and could deal a heavy blow to one of southwestern Connecticut’s significant industries: shellfishing.

For now, the cases — resulting from high levels of the naturally occurring bacteria Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which rapidly multiplies in higher temperatures — are the result of shellfish consumed in late June and early July. There is a significant time lapse in tracing the illnesses back to their sources, officials say.

Four of those cases involved shellfish that were commercially harvested, while one was recreational.

State officials are worried that as medical reports are finalized for record heat wave in July, the number of illnesses could rise dramatically and the swaths of Long Island Sound that the state has closed to harvesting could be expanded.

“The reason people bought (Connecticut’s) oysters in June, July and August is that we’ve never had a Vibrio outbreak in this state,” said David Carey, director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Aquaculture.

Such outbreaks, he added, are more common in states along the Gulf of Mexico.

“Now, all of a sudden, we have an outbreak, we have a closure,” he said. “We’ve lost the reason why people are attracted to us in the summer.”

On Friday, the state instituted a voluntary recall of all oysters, clams and other shellfish harvested in about 1,000 acres of commercially licensed space off the coast of Westport and Norwalk. Recreational shellfishing has been closed in those towns, as well as Darien.

That represents a small portion of Connecticut’s 70,000 acres of commercial shellfishing areas. But it’s also a rather productive one, as about 1 million oysters would be harvested daily from the closed areas, according to Carey.

The two firms that lease most of that Long Island Sound bedding are Norwalk companies, Norm Bloom & Son and Hillard Bloom Shellfish. Hearst Connecticut left messages with both firms on Tuesday seeking comment.

State officials have acted before to close shellfishing areas due to pollution from storm-water runoff or similar reasons, but never from this bacteria.

Consumer impact

In Fairfield on Tuesday, George Twigg, manager of Swanson’s Fish Market, said he had about two half-bushels of Blue Point oysters quarantined. He got a phone call Saturday morning from his distributor in Rhode Island informing him that he can’t sell the product.

“I’ve been here almost 25 years and this is probably the second or third time I’ve seen” something like this, Twigg said.

He estimated the shellfish he gets from the Norwalk and Westport waters represent about 10 to 12 percent of his overall business. The market value of the quarantined product he now has in his store is about $80 to $100, he said.

In Norwalk, Ralph Pagano, of Pagano’s Seafood — a wholesale, retail and catering operation — said he was worried that consumers would overreact with fear.

“What (this) has done is frighten people,” he said. “They were not fully aware of where the (affected) shellfish is fully harvested. ” If people are fishing off of Milford, Greenwich or upstate, the product is clean.“

Pagano said it is easy for a businessman like him to order shellfish from other places, but the fishermen who deal primarily in the Norwalk and Westport areas will suffer from the outbreak more.

Two Greenwich outfits contacted Tuesday appeared to be largely unconcerned. Tony Norado, who’s owned Bon Ton Fish Market since 1986, said he never ordered shellfish harvested in Long Island Sound. “That’s the reason why,” he said.

Employees at Greenwich’s Elm Street Oyster House echoed Norado’s point.

Wide-ranging effect

But Patrick Wescott, a salesman at American Mussel Harvesters in Rhode Island, said his company is a heavy investor in Blue Point oysters from the waters off of Norwalk and Westport. He described a stressful Friday night, as he and three other salesmen called “something like 200 customers” as far away as Texas and Florida to inform them that the products had to be quarantined. “This is a major fiasco,” he said.

He said American Mussel Harvesters will have to destroy about 10,000 oysters that took between two and three years to get to market size. “What a waste of time and effort and resources and fuel,” he said.

Carey, the head of Connecticut’s Aquaculture Bureau, described the dual anxieties he’s feeling now: first, that more people will have become sick because of the local shellfish; second, that companies around the country will have lost faith in shellfish from this area.

Carey said he believes new techniques and monitoring practices that will be implemented this winter and spring can limit the chances that such an outbreak will recur — and limit the stigma that could become associated with Connecticut oysters.

As for a potential spike in reported illnesses, Carey is holding onto at least one hope.

“The only good news is that some harvesters didn’t work that much during those (hot) days, and that may lower the risk,” he said.

tloh@scni.com; twitter.com/timloh; 203-625-4411