NOAA invests $1.5 million into researching harmful algal blooms in Kodiak

There’s a new partnership to monitor Kodiak Island beaches for harmful algal blooms, which spread marine toxins like Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning. Academic, federal, and tribal entities are working to better understand which waters are most susceptible to the toxins.

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The project’s partners held a presentation about what they hope to find on Near Island in a building owned by Koniag Inc., March 22, 2024. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is caused by a marine toxin that’s spread by harmful algal blooms. Humans can contract PSP when they eat shellfish contaminated by the toxin, which can be fatal. It’s become a bigger concern in recent decades, particularly in Kodiak

Right now, any shellfish harvested around the island needs to be sent to labs to test for toxins, which is mostly done off-island. 

Andie Wall is the environmental program supervisor for the Kodiak Area Native Association, which facilitates those tests. 

“Generally you go out with a bucket, you sacrifice six to eight of those shellfish – you send them to us, we’ll ship them off to Sitka and we’ll help interpret the results,” she said. 

Tests through KANA are done with the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research lab in Sitka. Once lab results are sent back, KANA advises harvesters about the safety of their seafood.

It’s kind of a guessing game whether or not the places where people harvest shellfish will have low or high levels of the toxins that cause PSP. 

But the Kodiak Area Native Association, Alaska Sea Grant, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have partnered to monitor various beaches for harmful algal blooms around Kodiak starting this year. 

NOAA has committed $1.5 million to pay for the testing and monitoring on land and even supports some research offshore aboard the NOAA research vessel, Oscar Dyson. The funding is expected to last for five years.

Part of the project includes sending KANA staff on the Oscar Dyson to help with research, March 22, 2024. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

David Kidwell is the director of the competitive research program at NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science, which funds the HABs research in Kodiak.

“Alaska really is “ground zero” for a lot of the concerns we have around Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, Harmful Algal Blooms,” he said. “And that’s in part due to the changing climate – we know that a lot of these species are moving further north than they used to be, but also the heavy reliance on subsistence use of those resources, the cultural significance of them as well as just the vast shoreline.”

In Kodiak, KANA’s Wall said some of their test locations so far include Mission Beach, South Trident Basin, as well as several spots along the island’s road system. 

“Our staff will be going out and collecting shellfish, water quality, and phytoplankton data from those locations,” she said. “If anybody wants to submit samples outside of those locations – that’s strongly encouraged.”

Wall said the whole point of the project is to test areas where shellfish are harvested. 

Julie Matweyou is a marine advisory program agent in Kodiak for Alaska Sea Grant, which is run by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She’s studied PSP and harmful algal blooms for years. She said locals have known about toxins in shellfish for a long time. 

“There’s written records back in the 1800s,” Matweyou said. “The Alutiiq Culture and practices have demonstrated that the way they handled shellfish, they knew about PSP.” 

Matweyou said part of the problem with Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is that it can be unpredictable. 

“You can monitor one beach, and it’s highly toxic and go to the next beach and it might not be,” she said. 

She said the monitoring project could make HABs more predictable soon. Part of the hope for the partnership is to create a forecast for harmful algal blooms to predict what areas will have high levels of toxins. But that’s still years away.

For now, the only way to ensure safety from subsistence harvests is by testing samples. Matweyou said she hopes to have testing on Kodiak Island soon, but that will take some time too. 

Editor’s Note: As a disclaimer, KANA’s Andie Wall is related to KMXT’s engineering and program director, Mike Wall.

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