Sitka Tribe/SEATOR join new Alaska Ocean Acidification Network tribal research working group

Esther Kennedy at the SEATOR lab in Sitka.

While most people don’t know much about ocean acidification, it has become a major concern of Alaska fishing communities. Higher rates of CO2 means the ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was three centuries ago, and that has impacted everything from how shellfish build their shells to causing harmful algal blooms that result in paralytic shellfish poisoning and other issues.

In order to monitor ocean acidification and its impact in Alaska coastal communities, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) and its partners in the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR) have joined the new Alaska Ocean Acidification Network (AOAN) tribal research working group.

Jeromy Grant, left, and Sean Williams of Hoonah Indian Association take water samples for SEATOR.

“Global warming increases the risk of shellfish toxins, while its partner ocean acidification directly threatens shellfish survival,” STA Environmental Specialist Esther Kennedy said. “We monitor ocean acidification and shellfish toxins at local beaches to ensure that shellfish remain a sustainable and safe wild food source despite ongoing environmental changes.”

The tribal working group was formed to coordinate ocean acidification research and monitoring activities, as well as local community outreach activities, between tribal organizations across Alaska. So far discussions have been on creating consistency in data collection, and expanding data collection to sites in the Arctic that are not currently adequately sampled.  This effort is about expanding tribal capacity for research and monitoring, and having tribes take the lead in some areas in Alaska which are under sampled by university and agency researchers, as well as partnering with those researchers to build local capacity.

In addition to Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA), other members of the AOAN tribal working group include Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak, the Native Village of Kotzebue, and Yakutat Tlingít Tribe. SEATOR includes 16 Southeast tribal partners, plus Sun’aq Tribe in Kodiak, with its lab located in Sitka. The Sitka Sound Science Center recently posted an online survey about ocean acidification for the AOAN.

“Over the past few years the Sitka Tribe of Alaska (STA) has become a leader in Alaska in monitoring for shellfish toxicity for communities,” said Davin Holen, who is coordinating the tribal working group for AOAN. “This includes working closely with communities throughout Southeast Alaska to monitor stocks important for subsistence harvests. This effort has lead to the establishment of the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research (SEATOR), which is housed in the environmental department of STA. Recently the STA lab installed equipment to monitor for ocean acidification. STA worked collaboratively with the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward to set up monitoring protocols for ocean acidification. Using their existing SEATOR network for testing shellfish, STA is beginning to monitor ocean acidification levels throughout Southeast Alaska. Additional monitoring will occur in collaboration with the Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak for Kodiak Archipelago communities, along with two sites under development in the Arctic. Tribal monitoring of environmental conditions in Southeast Alaska by STA through the SEATOR network has become a model for other areas of Alaska, making STA a vital partner for marine science in Alaska.”

The Sitka Tribe of Alaska continuously monitors the carbonate chemistry of Sitka Harbor and is beginning a discrete sample collection program modeled after the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery’s existing program. The Sitka Tribe coordinates discrete sample collection and analysis with the SEATOR partnership’s existing weekly phytoplankton and shellfish biotoxin monitoring programs, including with the Hoonah Indian Association and other Southeast Alaska tribal partners.

Kennedy said SEATOR’s participation in the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network tribal working group is a natural extension of its shellfish testing work.

“We installed a Burke-o-Lator (BoL) in early June, which is an instrument that can continuously monitor the chemistry of water pumped through it and can measure individual preserved water samples,” Kennedy said. “While we’re still working to fully calibrate the individual water sample analysis portion of the instrument, we have started shipping kits of bottles and preservative to our partners. Since our partners are already collecting a phytoplankton sample every week and shellfish samples every two weeks, our goal is for partners to add OA-sample collection to their phytoplankton sampling routine and to ship us preserved samples with their clams every two weeks. Ocean acidification’s specific effects on nearshore ecosystems are still not well known, so we’re hoping that by pairing OA samples with phytoplankton assemblages and shellfish toxins, we’ll get a clearer picture of each community’s vulnerability. We are also interested in seeing whether the chemistry in our OA samples helps us to predict phytoplankton toxins, as work in California has suggested that domoic acid production is higher in more acidic waters.”

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


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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• Sitka Tribe of Alaska starts testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and other marine biotoxins

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. (Photos by Emily Kwong, KCAW-Raven Radio)

PSPTestingEquipmentThe Sitka Tribe of Alaska and its other tribal partners in Southeast Alaska have begun testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) and other marine biotoxins.

The first-year testing program was detailed in a March 24 story on KCAW-Raven Radio, with each of the tribal partners concentrating on one particular spot in their communities (at Starrigavan Recreation Area in Sitka, where two people were sickened in October 2013) as the tribal testers become more comfortable with the testing procedures. Once the technicians become more proficient, and the regional testing lab is built, the program will be expanded to other beaches in Southeast Alaska. The second part of the two-part series aired on April 9 and discussed the benefits to commercial shellfish operations of having a lab in Southeast Alaska.

The Southeast Alaska Tribal Toxins (SEATT) program to study harmful algal blooms was announced in October, and Sitka Tribe of Alaska hosted a regional training in November. SEATT partners include Sitka Tribe of Alaska, the Klawock Cooperative Association, Craig Tribal Association, Yakutat Tlingít Tribe, Petersburg Indian Association, Organized Village of Kasaan, and the Central Council of Tlingít and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA). In addition to the grant to create the partnership, Sitka Tribe of Alaska also received a second grant to create a regional lab in Sitka to help monitor HABs in Southeast Alaska.

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, Pseudonitzchia and Dinophysis.

Being able to put trained monitors in several Southeast Alaska communities, the hope is the health risk can be reduced. Each technician will make weekly reports to the lab, which will help harvesters have better information as to the safety of their shellfish.