The SouthEast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) project coordinated by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska on Friday, May 6, issued a harmful algal bloom warning for shellfish harvested on Starrigavan Beach in Sitka.
SEATOR, the Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) partnership, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska have been monitoring saxitoxin on Starrigavan Beach in Sitka and other beaches around Southeast Alaska since late 2014. Saxitoxin is produced by the phytoplankton Alexandrium and can get highly concentrated in shellfish, leading to paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), which can be fatal.
According to SEATOR, “during our weekly phytoplankton sample last week, we noticed our first Alexandrium of the year. Immediately after, we tested saxitoxin levels in butter clams, littleneck clams and blue mussels, and found them all to have elevated levels of saxitoxin. We do not recommend that Sitkans harvest shellfish at this time, and ask them to look on seator.org/data for additional updates and information.”
Since most beaches in Alaska aren’t tested for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership were formed in October 2014 to train people to test beaches in Southeast Alaska. In April 2015, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska opened a regional lab on Katlian Street, so samples could be tested in Sitka without having to be sent to the Lower 48, which delayed results. By testing for harmful algal blooms, SEATOR and the SEATT partnership hope to be able to provide information so people can make informed choices whether or not to harvest or eat shellfish.
Harmful algal blooms, such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), typically have not been monitored in Southeast Alaska for subsistence and recreational harvesters of clams, mussels, oysters, cockles, and other bivalves (commercial harvests are tested). Even though many people in Southeast Alaska love to harvest shellfish, eating it comes with some risks. There have been several PSP outbreaks in recent years that sent people to the hospital, and in 2010 two deaths were attributed to PSP and other HABs, such as Alexandrium, Pseudo-nitzchia and Dinophysis.