High levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning found off Haines, Alaska

Gone are the days of poking along the Alaska shoreline at low tide, collecting fresh mussels and cooking them up over an open fire on the beach, after a scientist has found record levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning off the coast of Haines.

Scientist says some Yukoners are still harvesting mussels in Alaska: 'You're risking your life by doing that'

Bruce Wright, a senior scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, collects mussels in Prince William Sound. (Submitted by Bruce Wright)

Gone are the days of poking along the Alaska shoreline at low tide, collecting fresh mussels and cooking them up over an open fire on the beach. 

If you do that, as some Yukoners have, you're playing Russian roulette, says a scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

Bruce Wright, a senior scientist Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, has been studying paralytic shellfish poisoning in Alaska since 2006. (Submitted by Bruce Wright)

Bruce Wright recently released a report on the levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) off the coast of Haines, Alaska, and it's not good news. 

He found shellfish with above-safe levels of PSP at all of the sample sites. One location was off the charts, measuring 270 times Alaska's regulatory limit of 80 micrograms per 100 grams.

"Which means that one mussel could probably kill you," Wright says. 

I hear about folks coming down from the Yukon regularly still harvesting mussels and eating mussels. And I think that's super risky.- Bruce Wright, scientist

Some Yukoners still harvesting

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is found in bivalves like mussels, clams and oysters, where harmful algal blooms are present. The toxin can't be eliminated through cooking or any other means. Despite being also called "red tide," the colour of the tide is not indicative of its safety. 

Commercially sold shellfish are inspected and regulated, but the State of Alaska advises people against eating recreationally harvested shellfish at any time of the year. Yet, Wright says public awareness about the risk of eating shellfish is surprisingly low, both in state — and out. 

"I hear about folks coming down from the Yukon regularly still harvesting mussels and eating mussels. And I think that's super risky," he says. 

"In Haines and all along coastal Alaska ... you're risking your life by doing that." 

In 2010, two people died of PSP in southeast Alaska.

Wolf Riedl of Haines Junction, says the Canadians he fishes with stay away from clams and mussels. (Submitted by Wolf Riedl)

That's when the severity of the issue came onto Wolf Riedl's radar. The Haines Junction man has been fishing in Alaska for 40 years. 

"The Canadians that I know that fish down there and harvest, generally only harvest crabs or shrimp, they don't mess around with mussels or clams," he says. 

Crabs, which eat shellfish, can also contain PSP, but it's isolated to their digestive tracks. Crabs can be safely eaten as long as they are cleaned before being cooked. 

Riedl says most people avoid the crab entrails anyway, because they're "brown and gucky."

No 'safe' beaches in Alaska

The State of Alaska does not have a public bulletin like in BC and other coastal areas in Canada where PSP is found. Fisheries and Oceans Canada posts PSP updates and beach closure information on its website. 

"I would love for the state to step up to bat and match the programs that are active now in Canada," says Wright. 

Alaska ran a recreational shellfish pilot project in several communities that ended in June. Candice Bressler with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation says although the state was testing shellfish from beaches often used by locals for subsistence, it did not certify beaches as safe. 

Several PSP studies have taken place near Haines since 2010. Here, researchers test mussels in the Commander Islands off the coast of Alaska. (Submitted by Bruce Wright)

"The nature of PSP prevents us from doing so; levels can change between adjacent beaches, or even with the tide cycles," she says. 

There is a safe way to harvest shellfish, but it's time-consuming. It requires sending shellfish away for sampling while storing the harvest in a fridge or freezer until the results come back, weeks later. Wright says this is usually done as a community-wide coordination rather than by individuals. 

Warm water means more PSP

Wright expects PSP numbers to get worse, as the Gulf of Alaska warms and harmful algal blooms become more frequent. Last summer, satellite imagery recorded the largest bloom ever seen in the Gulf of Alaska. 

"It was pretty impressive and a little scary," he says. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.