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

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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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• Kake to host three-day shellfish mariculture workshop on May 1-3

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The Southeast Soil and Water Conservation District (SESWCD) will host a comprehensive three-day shellfish mariculture workshop on Thursday through Saturday, May 1-3, in Kake.  (NOTE: Capital City Weekly ran an article covering this event, http://capitalcityweekly.com/stories/051414/new_1206564746.shtml).

This program will be aimed at teaching best management practices to beginning oyster farmers. The workshop curriculum will consist of lectures, labs, and hands-on field operations on working oyster farms. This workshop is open to the public and the District anticipates participation from shellfish farmers in Kake, Hoonah, and Angoon. Participants will learn from experts about nearly every aspect of oyster farming in Southeast Alaska.

The workshop also features a shellfish-oriented educational program at the Kake Community School, as well as a community presentation at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, at the Kake Community Hall Kitchen. Topics at the community presentation include: food security and mariculture, shellfish enhancement activities for subsistence use, indirect economic benefits of mariculture in the community, and commercial aquaculture diversity.

The District’s partners in this project are the Organized Village of Kake and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. Other participating organizations include the Hoonah Indian Association, Haa Aaní LLC, Alaska Division of Economic Development (Alaska Department of Commerce, Communities and Economic Development), and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

One of the SESWCD’s strategic focus areas is mariculture development (shellfish farming). The intent is to facilitate increased mariculture development in Southeast Alaska to increase food security and support rural economies. This shellfish farming workshop will be the district’s first project in its mariculture program. The Southeast Soil and Water Conservation District is a statutorily authorized quasi-state agency that leverages public funding with private sources to help the communities of Southeast Alaska become more sustainable and self-sufficient.

To register or receive more info, contact James Marcus at 1-907-586-6878 (Juneau number) or districtmanager@seswcd.org.

• Southeast Soil and Water Conservation District Shellfish Mariculture Workshop in Kake press release (with tentative schedule on second page)

• Southeast Conference and partners release regional food system assessment

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The Southeast Conference and its partners recently released the “Southeast Alaska Food System Assessment: A pilot project to identify actions to promote self-sustaining communities and a resilient food system.”

The 32-page document is the result of a four-month research project supported by the Tongass People and Place Program (coordinated by the Southeast Alaska Watershed Coalition), Southeast Conference, Sheinberg Associates, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service. The report examines local food systems throughout the region to see what challenges exist and how they can be solved so Southeast Alaska communities are more food secure and sustainable.

The report looks at what foods are being grown in several communities and who’s growing them. It also weighs the strengths and weaknesses of the different food systems in the region, with a special wild food focus group hosted by the Organized Village of Kake. For more information, check out the report link below.

• Southeast Alaska Food System Assessment