On a clear August morning, a group of 10 volunteers gathered on the Near Island North Trident Basin, wearing waders and rubber gloves. They quickly got to work digging square-shaped holes in the rocky beach, one-foot deep. Every Butter, Littleneck, Cockle and Macoma clam they encountered was collected, weighed and measured.

This was all part of a biomass survey cooperatively led by the Kodiak Area Native Association and Sun’aq Tribe as part of their effort to better understand the area’s clam population and the levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning in Kodiak beaches. PSP is caused by harmful algae blooms, and is potentially fatal. 

The program is funded by a grant from the Borough of Indian Affairs Tribal Resilience Program, according to Andie Wall, an environmental technician for KANA.

The once-a-year biomass survey, conducted on Aug. 1, is intended to assess the clam population on particular beaches in Kodiak. Digging 35 holes, it took the volunteers four hours to complete all the data collection. A similar survey was conducted on Mission Beach in June. 

“This is a good way to see where the different species are distributed along that beach,” said Kelly Krueger, a Tribal biologist with Sun’aq Tribe. “We want to make sure our populations are stable.”

Wall said that the goal is to track the clam population on Kodiak beaches in order to estimate the mean clam density and their relative distribution. This information has a variety of implications — including for the health of Kodiak’s sea otter population — but it is particularly important for subsistence harvesting. Clams have been a traditional food source for Alaska Native people since they first settled in the Kodiak archipelago. 

“This is us building baseline data on the shellfish on Kodiak beaches,” Wall said. “This data, to my knowledge, has not been collected before.”

Collecting baseline data allows Kodiak researchers to track changes in clam populations and harmful algal blooms from year to year.

This is only the second year that biomass surveys have been done in Kodiak. They are conducted according to a protocol developed by the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research. SEATOR’s primary goal, according to their website, is to improve Tribal and rural access to traditional foods. 

SEATOR is working to build a statewide database of shellfish toxicity levels and toxic plankton blooms. To that end, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab tests shellfish to ensure they are safe for human consumption.

Consuming shellfish without knowing an area’s toxicity levels is like “playing Russian roulette,” Krueger said.

Unlike the procedures in similar labs, SEATOR offers quick turnaround times, returning results on toxicity levels within two to three business days, at a cost of $50 per 5-ounce sample. 

“One of the main things with SEATOR is a short turnaround time, so people will be able to do what the project calls ‘Harvest and Hold,’” Wall explained. Individuals can send clams to be tested and then wait to receive their results before consuming their haul.

KANA has only recently gotten involved in existing research and information distribution efforts on the risks of consuming shellfish in Kodiak. In the past year, KANA has received grant funding for shellfish and plankton monitoring. Wall said that they hope to extend the funding from the BIA Tribal Resilience Program until March 2020, when they will need to apply for a new funding source.

“We got word that that is not going to happen the following year, so we are going to try and find additional funding after that,” Wall said. “It’s really difficult to get funding for these programs.”

KANA’s long-term goal is to add another layer of research to the existing research conducted in Kodiak by the Sun’aq Tribe and Julie Matweyou of Alaska Sea Grant.

“Right now we’re only testing for paralytic shellfish poisoning, but there are other harmful algal species present in Alaska waters,” Wall said.

Alexandrium is the type of phytoplankton that produces saxitoxin, the toxin associated with PSP. But Alaska shores may also have dangerous levels of pseudo-nitzschia and dinophysis, which can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, Wall explained. While PSP causes paralysis, ASP and DSP respectively cause short-term memory loss and gastric distress.

“Phytoplankton is really a distinguishing factor in this because it serves as an early warning system for what’s going to happen to the shellfish,” Wall said. “Whatever is in the water, the shellfish are consuming.”

In addition to sending shellfish samples to the Sitka lab, Wall relies on Matweyou’s lab space, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, to test water samples collected from Kodiak beaches.

“They call it the angry hamburger,” Wall said, pointing to a microscopic image of Alexandrium found in a sample she collected. 

Wall said that KANA hopes to test for other phytoplankton, but also increase the number of locations where tests are conducted. Currently, monitoring takes place on Near Island and Mission Beach, but Wall hopes to expand the project into remote Native villages where subsistence harvesting still takes place.

Matweyou has already conducted testing in Old Harbor and Ouzinkie, two villages in the Kodiak archipelago. 

“This year we’ve been looking at the water and it’s above the regulatory limit, but it hasn’t been in the thousands or anything like that, where I would be standing outside of all of the beaches with a picket sign saying ‘don’t eat these shellfish!’ for every low tide,” Wall said.

The FDA regulatory limit for PSP is 80 micrograms of toxin per hundred grams of shellfish. Anything above that is considered unsafe for human consumption. The most recent butter clam sample collected by Sun’aq tribe measured 131.

However, Southeast Alaska has seen extremely elevated levels of toxins this summer, with some samples collected in Juneau measuring more than 2,000 micrograms of toxin per hundred grams of shellfish, according to information available on seator.com.

Wall said that the reason for variation in toxin level is unclear. Generally, phytoplankton tend to bloom in the spring, and then again in the fall, with elevated levels lasting throughout the summer.

Traditional knowledge says that during any month with an ‘R’ in it, shellfish are safe to consume. That means that September through April are considered the ‘safe’ period.

Excluding the summer months makes intuitive sense because phytoplankton go dormant or die in colder water, Wall said. However, traditional knowledge is being challenged, as SEATOR has found elevated levels of phytoplankton beginning in April.

In order to raise awareness to the issue, KANA has started sending out weekly phytoplankton updates. The newsletter, sent every Friday, informs readers of any harmful algae blooms found in monitored Kodiak shores. 

Currently, subscribers include volunteers and members of the Kodiak Environmental Leaders and Professionals network, but anybody can sign up to receive it, Wall said. 

“We want people to have this information and to ask questions,” she said. “We just want everybody to gain more knowledge.”

If KANA receives additional funding, they intend to install clam hubs — informational boards — in every surveyed beach, where up-to-date information on toxicity levels will be posted.

“We want this to be a tool,” Wall said. “I think that that’s going to be our best bet for making sure that people who are actually going out to collect can get that information.”

According to Wall, KANA’s research and outreach efforts are part of a much larger puzzle.

“It’s very much a collaborative effort. KANA is a newer organization to something that’s been studied for many years,” she said. “Without our partners, we wouldn’t have this knowledge and we wouldn’t have our protocols.”

The Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network brings together a diverse array of researchers working on the issue. AHAB was formed in 2017 to provide a statewide approach to harmful algal bloom awareness, research, monitoring and response, according to the organization’s website.

Since the State of Alaska provides limited public funding for subsistence harvested shellfish testing, it is particularly important to bring together the various organizations working on the issue, according to Wall. 

“It’s easier for the state to say, ‘don’t eat shellfish at all, none of them are safe,’ but that goes against traditional knowledge and against traditional ways of life, where people have been utilizing this resource for thousands of years,” Wall said. “There’s a lot of people trying to get the information out there to communities.”

“All that we can do is give the information and let people make their own decisions,” Wall said. “There’s a lot of different views on this topic so we want to say ‘here’s the facts, do with it what you want.’”

The Sun’aq Tribe has tested butter clams since 2016, according to Krueger. 

While SEATOR has focused on providing a streamlined testing process and database for subsistence harvesters in Alaska, Krueger has worked with researchers in North Carolina who are developing a rapid-test kit that will allow harvesters to see real-time results for PSP toxicity levels. 

In order to support both projects, Kodiak researchers intend to split their clam samples, with part going to the lab in North Carolina and the rest sent to the SEATOR lab in Sitka. 

In order to perform the toxin test, shellfish are placed in a blender to create a ‘clam smoothie.’ 

“It makes you not want to eat kale smoothies for a while, because the phytoplankton there is all green,” Wall said, adding that the methods for measuring toxicity levels are “super grim.”

In Sitka, samples are tested using pig brains. Since PSP toxins block brain receptors, scientists are able to determine toxicity levels by measuring the percentage of receptors that are blocked in response to an injection of the ‘shellfish smoothie.’

In other labs, toxicity levels are measured by injecting the homogenized shellfish sample into mice and measuring the length of time before the mice die. 

In order to collect samples for PSP level monitoring, Krueger and Wall organize a monthly dig of butter clams. The next dig will take place on Aug. 15 at 8 a.m. on Mission Beach.

Wall said she is always looking for more volunteers. 

“It’s been very small, very word-of-mouth, but anyone and everyone is welcome to join. Many hands make light work,” she said. “The more community involvement we can get in this, the better.”

Interested in individuals can email andie.wall@kodiakhealthcare.org or call (907) 486-1313.

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