• New biotoxin lab in Sitka allows for quicker, better monitoring of harmful algal blooms in Southeast Alaska

MichaelJamrosChrisWhiteheadEstherKennedyJohnDorothyOrbisonDeanOrbison

From left, Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Lab Manager Michael Jamros, STA Environmental Program Manager Chris Whitehead, and STA Environmental Specialist Esther Kennedy discuss the new Sitka Biotoxin Lab with visitors to an open house on Monday, Nov. 30, 2015. The new lab will help Southeast subsistence and sport shellfish harvesters learn about harmful algal blooms in the region so they can avoid paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) or amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

Most shellfish eaters are aware of the massive algal bloom that shut down many shellfish operations on the Pacific Coast this summer. The algal bloom even reached Sitka’s Starrigavan Beach with the June discovery of Pseudo-nitzchia, a species of plankton that sometimes produces domoic acid which can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). ASP causes gastrointestinal issues in mild cases, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In more severe cases there will be neurological problems, such as headaches, confusion, hallucinations, short-term memory loss, respiratory difficulty, seizures, coma, and in extreme cases, death.

SEAKTribalToxinsSEATTPartnerLocationsUntil two years ago, Southeast Alaska beaches and subsistence- and sport-harvested shellfish weren’t tested for harmful biotoxins. That changed with the Southeast Alaska Tribal Testing (SEATT) program, a partnership of regional tribes coordinated by Sitka Tribe of Alaska, that began training technicians from six villages (now 12 villages) in the region on how to gather water samples so they could be tested. SEATT is part of a program called Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR).

Now the project has moved to the next phase, the creation of a Sitka Biotoxin Lab, located at 429 Katlian Street, that can provide quicker and better testing results to people in the region who want to eat shellfish. Instead of sending samples to the Lower 48 for testing, which can take more than a week or two, samples from Southeast Alaska can be tested in Sitka and data can be available in less than 24 hours, Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Program Manager Chris Whitehead said during an open house at the lab on Monday, Nov. 30. Before the lab opened, the program just took water samples. But now it will be able to actually test the shellfish for biotoxins.

Whitehead said one of the purposes of the lab is to give shellfish harvesters as much information as possible about possible harmful algal blooms so they can make informed decisions about if they still want to harvest and eat local shellfish. Harmful algal blooms spread a variety of biotoxins, such as domoic acid and saxitoxin, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). PSP and ASP can be deadly, and in 2010 there were two people in Southeast Alaska who died from PSP.

Cockles-Alaska-Department-of-Health-and-Social-Services“The toxins can stay in butter clams for 2 1/2 to three years,” Whitehead said, disproving the common local myth that shellfish is safe to eat in months with R in the name. “We’re still seeing blooms in December.”

Whitehead said he’s hoping to eventually be able to do baseline sampling of a variety of beaches in Southeast Alaska. He said they are sampling bays for cyst beds by digging cores in the beach soil, and they’ve found cysts 3-4 meters (9-13 feet) below the surface. While the beach might be safe for now, if people start building piers or docks it can stir up the cyst beds and launch a harmful algal bloom.

The lab and testing program is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Indian Environmental General Assistance Program, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and Tribal Cooperative Landscape Conservation Program, and the Administration for Native Americans’Environmental Regulatory Enhancement program. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Biotoxin Programs from Seattle, Wash., and Charleston, S.C., provided training through workshops to help develop the SEATT program.

raw-clams-350Michael Jamros, PhD, was hired in October as the STA Environmental Lab Manager, and he will be handling most of the actual testing and diagnosis of the seawater and shellfish. He said right now the lab is focused on subsistence and sports harvests, but down the road it’s hoping to become FDA-certified so it can test commercial harvests.

Esther Kennedy is the STA Environmental Specialist, and she said “every week I go plankton hunting.” This summer all of her tests were at Starrigavan State Recreation Area, but now that the lab is open she will be able to test in more areas, “wherever you think people might harvest shellfish.”

pe-fig1“I think this will help our food security,” Kennedy said. “People will be able to see this abundant resource of shellfish, and now they’ll have better information about whether it’s safe to harvest.”

In addition to the Sitka staff, the program also trains monitors from 12 partner villages to test in their areas, which range from Ketchikan on the south to Yakutat on the north. These monitors come to Sitka twice a year for training, with their most recent training in early November. A slideshow of photos from the training is posted below.

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• Harmful algal bloom warning issued for shellfish harvested in Starrigavan Beach

Clam diggers work the beach at Starrigavan in this file photo. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska is warning Sitkans against harvesting clams in the area due to a harmful algae detected Monday, June 8, 2015. (Daily Sitka Sentinel file photo by James Poulson)

Clam diggers work the beach at Starrigavan State Recreation Area in this file photo. The Sitka Tribe of Alaska is warning Sitkans against harvesting clams in the area due to a harmful algae detected Monday, June 8, 2015. (Daily Sitka Sentinel file photo by James Poulson)

Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) on Monday, June 8, issued a warning that people should not be eating shellfish harvested at Starrigavan Beach in Sitka.

Pseudo-nitzchia“Yes, we are seeing a bloom of Pseudo-nitszchia. This species of plankton can produce domoic acid which can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP),” Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Program Manager Chris Whitehead said.

Whitehead is coordinating SEATOR and the Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) partnership program where seven tribes in Southeast Alaska are partnering to test shellfish for harmful algal booms that can cause problems such as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) or other health issues. The SEATT partnership program and SEATOR were launched a little bit over a year ago because there is no harmful algal bloom testing of Southeast beaches by the state, even though there had been many recent cases of PSP outbreaks that resulted in people being hospitalized or even dying.

According to the SEATOR website, Pseudo-nitzchia spp is a genus of diatoms found worldwide. In North America, it can be found on the Pacific Northwest Coast from Alaska to mid-California, the Northeast Atlantic Coast of Canada, in North Carolina, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Domoic acid is a neurotoxin that binds glutamate receptors, which are involved in memory processing.

Amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) causes gastrointestinal and neurologic issues. Mild cases usually occur within 24 hours after eating shellfish exposed to the ASP toxin. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. In more severe cases there also will be neurological problems, such as headaches, confusion, hallucinations, short-term memory loss, respiratory difficulty, seizures, coma, and in extreme cases, death.

According to a recent story from Oregon Public Broadcasting’s KUOW/EarthFix program, there currently is a massive harmful algal bloom extending from Homer, Alaska, on the north to Monterey Beach, Calif., in the south. In addition to impacting shellfish, the toxic harmful algal bloom has caused problems in fish and marine mammals that ate infected shellfish.

If you recently have eaten shellfish harvested in the Starrigavan State Recreation Area and have any of the above symptoms, you should seek medical help immediately.