Warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska cause concern for toxic algal blooms

State health officials and researchers are urging Gulf of Alaska subsistence harvesters to get their shellfish tested to prevent paralytic shellfish poisoning. Shellfish sold in restaurants and stores are subject to their own regulatory testing.

That’s after a sample of razor clams from Chignik Lagoon late last week tested for levels of toxins 8 times higher than the limit deemed safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is an illness caused by a marine toxin. It’s serious and sometimes fatal.

Crew dig for clams on Mission beach as part of KANA’s testing program. (Photo by Kayla Desroches / KMXT)

Bruce Wright is the chief scientist with the Knik Tribe, and oversees regional shellfish testing. He says that rapid ocean warming in the Gulf of Alaska in late May has made the water conducive to Alexandrium blooms – which produce the toxin responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning. And it’s only gotten warmer throughout June.

“From Sitka all along the coast, up close to the coast, along Kodiak, lower Cook Inlet, out the Aleutians including southern Alaska Peninsula, the water temperatures had increased 3, 4 degrees,” he said. “And we’re now approaching 8 or 9 degrees.”

Matthew Forester is the biological analysis section manager with the State of Alaska’s Environmental Health Laboratory, which processed the Chignik Lagoon sample on behalf of the Knik Tribe. He says water temperatures can vary from beach to beach, but testing is critically important any time of year.

“The only safe shellfish to consume is shellfish that has been tested,” said Forester.

Subsistence shellfish harvesters can send in their samples to the state lab for a $125 fee. The Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research – or SEATOR – in Sitka also offers testing for $75. 

The Kodiak Area Native Association’s free shellfish testing program ran out of funding at the end of last year, and KANA hasn’t been able to provide testing since then. The omnibus spending package passed last spring includes $50,000 in federal stopgap funds to jumpstart the program, although KANA won’t receive the funds – and be able to start testing again – until September.

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