On a recent Tuesday evening, Andie Wall, an environmental technician for the Kodiak Area Native Program, was collecting shellfish on Mission Beach. After she and a volunteer half filled a bucket with butter clams, the pair trudged through tide pools to collect their next target: blue mussels. Wall explained that the shellfish will be sent to a lab in Sitka, where they’ll be tested for saxitoxin. Shellfish become infected with toxins by filter feeding when certain harmful algal blooms are present in the water –– if shellfish with saxitoxin are eaten, it can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.
“People make jokes about it, like: feed them to your cat first,” Wall said, before noting the seriousness of PSP, which can be fatal. Wall has only been professionally involved in shellfish monitoring for a couple of months, but she grew up on Kodiak Island, so acknowledging the risks of toxic shellfish has long been part of her life.
“That’s part of the reason why I picked up the project, because my family used to eat shellfish in Larsen Bay all the time. We had a great clamming beach,” Wall said. “There was one day when there was algae all over the beach and my dad refused to stop eating them. We would wait to see if he keeled over before the kids started eating them.”
Kodiak shellfish has consistently been found to have the highest levels of PSP toxins in the state and, typically, about a third of the illnesses and deaths related to shellfish poisoning occur in Kodiak. As a result, in recent years, local groups have made efforts to establish programs for regularly monitoring shellfish. In December, Kodiak Area Native Association was awarded a grant, which allowed for the expansion of the number of sites being monitored from one to four.
While there is still a long way to go before the goal of a sustainable “safe harvest program” is achieved, the groups are building a dataset that is becoming more robust every month.
At the root of these efforts is Julie Matweyou, a regional agent for Kodiak with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, which is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Science. Matweyou has been working on PSP in Kodiak since 2011.
“My job looks like a lot of different things. I’m involved with commercial fishing issues, marine safety, marine science literacy –– and a lot with paralytic shellfish poisoning because it’s my background,” Matweyou said. “I study PSP here in Kodiak, because it’s a need for my community. If it wasn’t a problem for our community, I’d likely be focusing on another issue.”
While PSP is particularly prevalent in Kodiak, it’s a state-wide problem. It most directly impacts subsistence shellfish harvesters because, while commercial shellfish are rigorously tested, there is no statewide monitoring program for personal-use shellfish in Alaska.
“Other states in our nation have routine monitoring programs in place, funded by the state,” Matweyou said. “Because of our extensive coastline –– 33,000 miles — our remoteness, all the complicated factors, state funds have never been allocated to do this.”
In light of this, money was appropriated in 2012 for a pilot local monitoring project. The idea was to see if it would be possible to establish a safe harvest system, in which regular monitoring could lead to local messaging to let people know when it’s safe to dig for shellfish. Four communities were selected, one of which was Kodiak.
The project, which Matweyou was heavily involved with, was funded from 2012-2015. She explained that communities selected a species that was most commonly consumed (butter clams in Kodiak) and locations in which the species were traditionally harvested (beaches in Ouzinkie and Old Harbor). Part of this project was identifying dangerous levels of toxins in the selected shellfish.
Dangerous toxins are produced naturally in phytoplantkon, which are microscopic marine algae. The PSP toxin is produced in a phytoplantkon called Alexandrium.
“Scientists don’t really know exactly why it produces it –– there’s a lot of different theories,” Matweyou said. “Anything that is a filter-feeder will consume that as a natural part of their diet … that’s why they can be so toxic, because they’re syphoning thousands and thousands of gallons a day.”
Levels of these toxins tend to be higher in the summer, because the harmful algal blooms which produce the toxins flourish. In Kodiak, however, test results consistently indicate dangerous toxin levels in butter clams throughout most of the year. Research suggests butter clams can retain toxins for up to two years. Safety guidelines state that if a test shows that there are 80 micrograms of toxin or more per 100 grams of shellfish, it’s not safe to eat.
“We routinely were above the safe regulatory level,” Matweyou said. “Old Harbor in particular.”
Matweyou explained that the idea of a safe harvest program would be for the community to harvest their shellfish, then hold their product and wait for the results to come back to them telling them if the shellfish were safe or not safe. One of the weaknesses of the program was that it took a long time for the lab to get results back to the community. As such, over the past three years, Matweyou has simultaneously been working on a research project with the aim of developing a rapid field test kit along with Brian Himelbloom.
“One of my goals has been to provide rapid, low-cost testing that’s accessible to users,” she said. “We wanted to have a beach test kit that didn’t just tell you pass or fail, because we almost always fail in Kodiak. The idea was to build a test kit that would give you a digital readout.”
The funding for that project is coming to an end and Matweyou said the team hasn’t been wholly successful.
“It’s not going to happen in the duration of this project, which is very unfortunate,” she said. “I’m partnering with scientists from NOAA in the Beaufort lab in North Carolina. They ran into, literally, biochemical barriers.”
While Matweyou is optimistic that an affordable rapid field test kit will eventually be developed, the more pressing issue is establishing a solid community monitoring program. After the grant for the pilot local monitoring program expired, Matweyou successfully applied for more funding through the North Pacific Research Board, which is where Sun’aq Tribe of Kodiak got involved
“We started in 2016. We were funded through Julie’s grant as a partner,” said Kelly Krueger, the tribal biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe. “So we started digging for butter clams in North Trident Basin. It’s an historic harvesting site for tribal members.”
Krueger said that a primary objective for the project is to let people know whether butter clams in that specific location are safe to eat.
“A lot of people historically harvested shellfish, but they’ve stopped, we think because of PSP,” “When we first started going down there, we’d see a lot of people –– like in the winter time in 2016 — trying to dig clams or trying to find octopus, but lately we haven’t seen anyone down there.”
It is possible that locals have been deterred by a recent shellfish poisoning incident: in May 2016, someone became severely ill after consuming shellfish from Roslyn Beach in Chiniak.
For its monitoring, Sun’aq Tribe collects a dozen or so clams once a month and sends them to a lab in Sikta for testing. The results come back in two days and are posted to the Sun’aq Tribe’s website and Facebook page. While they regularly show toxin levels above the regulatory safety levels, the idea is that a user could harvest a bucket of shellfish and only have to wait 48 hours before knowing whether they’re safe to eat.
One of the issues with PSP monitoring, Krueger said, is that levels can vary from samples collected from as close as 20 feet apart. That said, adding to the data set that was started in 2013 is still useful for ongoing research.
About a year ago, KANA applied for a grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Resilience program for a collective monitoring program, partnering with Matweyou, Sun’aq Tribe and Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research, a group conducting monitoring programs in various other parts of the state.
KANA received funding in December and is now monitoring shellfish at three locations (including two at Mission Beach), as well as supporting Sun’aq in continuing to monitor North Trident Basin.
“The fact there’s no monitoring in this area kind of blew my mind a little bit, coming from Washington State, where there is a very well developed monitoring program for their beaches and recreational harvesting,” said Stephanie Mason, environmental coordinator for KANA. “My supervisor and KANA wanted to support what has already been developed with Julie and Sun’aq.”
Ultimately, KANA’s goal is safety in the villages –– and Mason said the risks are only going to increase with climate change.
“There are a lot of people who still harvest and it’s very risky,” Mason said. “As we’re seeing temperatures change in our climate and ocean chemistry changes, they are anticipating that HAB (harmful algal blooms) frequency to increase, which means more toxic shellfish.”
Wall is the boots on the ground for the project. She explained that there are two parts of her job: collecting shellfish for testing and monitoring water for harmful algal blooms.
“That’s phytoplankton tows once a week at each one of the locations to see what’s going on in the water column,” she said, explaining that she’ll take a small net and drag it through the water to see levels of harmful algal blooms. “So we’re looking to see if there’s a correlation between the two. If we see a lot of Alexandrium in the water in south Trident Basin, in the next shellfish sample our expectation would be to see higher levels of PSP.”
While Mason has coordinated volunteers out in the rural communities to begin collecting water samples to test for harmful algal blooms, there is currently no shellfish monitoring occurring in the villages. Mason said that will hopefully be the next step.
“That’s a long-term goal of the project: to get this down on the road system, work out the kinks, and then develop more monitoring sites,” Mason said. “Another aspect of this project is outreach and PSA. We want to say that eating shellfish is risky, no matter what. By putting these numbers (toxin levels of tested shellfish) out, it is site-specific but it starts a conversation. It will hopefully point fingers in our direction –– and we will tell people that the only safe way to eat shellfish right now is to ‘harvest and hold.’”
Harvest and hold means: harvest the shellfish from one specific location, take 6-12 of the clams, send them to be tested and wait for the results before considering eating them.
“A lot of this is outreach, outreach, outreach,” Mason said.
KANA is still looking for volunteers to help dig for shellfish. Those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.