New harmful algal bloom warning issued for shellfish harvested in Starrigavan Beach North in Sitka

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The SouthEast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) project, SouthEast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) partnership and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab (STAERL) on Friday, Nov. 4, issued a warning that people should not eat molluscan shellfish (bivalves such as clams, oysters, scallops, mussels, geoducks, cockles, etc.) harvested at Starrigavan Beach North in Sitka. There also is a recent harmful algal bloom warning for the Sitka Sound Science Center Beach.

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photos by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

Esther Kennedy of the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Resource Protection Department samples water near the Starrigavan Recreation Area dock for marine biotoxins such as paralytic shellfish poisoning. (Photo by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

Samples at Starrigavan Beach North harvested Oct. 31 had elevated levels of the paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins above theFDA regulatory limit of 80µg/100g. The Sitka Sound Science Center Beach advisory is based on shellfish harvested on Oct. 24. Molluscan shellfish from these sites should not be harvested at this time.

The PSP advisory is for bivalve shellfish that have been recreationally or subsistence harvested. It does not apply to commercially harvested shellfish, which are tested before they enter the market. The advisory does not apply to other shellfish, such as crabs or shrimp, which do not carry PSP (unless you eat the crab butter or viscera).

There have been several harmful algal bloom alerts released by SEATOR this summer, but this recent announcement is a good reminder that PSP can happen throughout the year. It also discredits the myth that you don’t have to worry about shellfish harvested in months containing an R.

According to SEATOR, “This does not ‘certify’ any of our monitored sites. Conditions may change rapidly and data is site-specific. Caution should always be taken prior to harvesting.”

The butter clam has one set of rings that go one direction only, around the same center point (Photo courtesy of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation)

SEATOR posts updates and information to its website at seator.org/data, which can help provide Southeast Alaska residents with reliable information so they can choose whether or not to harvest shellfish. In addition to testing water samples weekly from certain Southeast beaches, STAERL also tests samples of butter clams, littleneck clams, and blue mussels (which is STAERL’s indicator species, because of how quickly blue mussels absorb saxotoxins).

In addition to the saxitoxins that cause PSP, the lab in Sitka has been monitoring for other blooms that cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). PSP and ASP can cause severe health problems, including death in some cases.

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.

To learn more about harmful algal blooms and how they can raise the risk for PSP and ASP (amnesic shellfish poisoning, which also can be fatal), go to SEATOR’s resources page. If you have shellfish you recently harvested and want to test it, click this link to learn what you need to do to have it tested by STAERL or watch this video. SEATOR also has a new Facebook page, where people can find updates. Please contact STAERL at 747-7395 with any additional questions.

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