Toxic Shellfish Part 2: Poison Builds Partnerships

What happened?

In May, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska took another important step forward on their journey to establish a shellfish toxin testing lab to serve Southeast Alaska. Representatives from eight regional tribes, the Washington Department of Health, NOAA, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC), and the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association (SARDFA) met to learn how to test seawater samples for harmful toxins. Lest anyone forget, shellfish toxins such as the saxitoxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning or the domoic acid that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning remain a real and intensely present risk in Southeast Alaska. This past December a man in North Douglas contracted PSP harvesting clams only 150 yards away from the boat launch, while a few weeks ago Ketchikan saw their first bloom of the saxitoxin-producing plankton Alexandrium.


A picture of plankton from June 8th's tow at Starrigavan Dock. The scalloped chains in the center are the diatom Pseudonitzschia, a plankton that occasionally produces domoic acid and amnesic shellfish poisoning. Starting this summer, the Tribe will be able to say whether that domoic acid is being produced.

This is the second such meeting in the last year. The first, in November 2014 taught attendees how to collect and monitor plankton species at local beaches. We described that conference in a previous blog post, while KCAW also ran a story (found here). While monitoring plankton species can give several days notice of potentially toxic bloom events and rising toxin levels in shellfish, monitoring species is still a fair distance from testing the toxin levels in the toxins themselves. This meeting aimed to reduce that distance. If potentially harmful plankton are present, Tribes will now test a seawater sample directly for the presence of toxins. Harmful plankton do not produce toxins all the time, so this additional step is a way to reduce unnecessary alarm over high plankton levels.

Why did it (need to) happen?

Commercially harvested shellfish, from geoducks to scallops, are all tested by the ADEC for paralyzing saxitoxins. This is an important and necessary step to keep consumers safe, but it’s also nearly impossible for Southeast Alaskans to get their samples to the Anchorage lab in time. Samples are results are only good for five days from the date of collection. It frequently takes three days to get samples from fishing grounds in southern Southeast to and through the lab, leaving one day for fishermen to travel to the fishing ground and only one day to collect shellfish! If the samples are delayed at any point or fall outside the time or temperature regulations, there may not be an opening at all that week.


Left: the promise of unopened boxes fills the air as Sitka Tribe's new lab comes together. Right: Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA) shows Brian Holter and Ray Paddock how to filter a water sample. ©

The importance of the regulations requiring shellfish testing and specifying the treatment of samples can not be overstated. Properly handled samples are necessary for good lab results, and good lab results are essential when we’re looking at toxins that can cause people to stop breathing. The issue is not the testing process, but instead that the State of Alaska does not have the resources to open a regional testing facility, nor do they have the resources to expand their shellfish testing program to recreational and traditional shellfish harvesters. ADEC is doing an excellent job testing samples with the money they have, but there is a need for a regionally-based lab that can also serve recreational harvesters. The Sitka Tribe and the SEATT partnership are hoping to build just that.

So why was this meeting so exciting?

As we pointed out before, the Sitka Tribe’s leadership on this issue is an important step toward reclaiming local ownership over a healthy, wild food source. Here in Sitka, our beaches are littered with mussels, butter clams, littleneck clams, and cockles. We are surrounded by food, but paralyzed with fear (pun intended). Having access to real information about current plankton levels and toxin levels would change that, opening up our beaches to traditional and recreational harvesters alike.

More importantly, however, this May meeting was important because of the partnerships it has created and strengthened. The November meeting featured seven Southeast Tribes, NOAA, and the Washington Department of Health (WDOH). This meeting featured eight Tribes, while three more are committed to joining at the start of the next fiscal year. NOAA and WDOH have both remained involved as well. The real triumph, however, is the new participation of SARDFA and the State. This project will not succeed without the support and patronage of the Southeast divers, and it can not even get off the ground without the tacit approval of the State.

Federal, state, private, public, local, regional, and Tribal organizations. All working together, all working to build a regional lab devoted to local and regional food. Alaskans are fond of saying that resources belong to the people. The partnerships this project has brought together prove the truth of that statement.

We wish the SEATT partnership solidarity, good fortune, and few plankton blooms. Sample on, friends!


SEATT members learn to collect a whole water sample. ©


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