Most paralytic shellfish poisoning cases were among Alaska Natives, but state lacks data for subsistence foods

Gloved hands holding a bunch of mussels
Blue mussels at Nahku Bay. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Kodiak Island had the most cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning in Alaska over the last nearly 30 years, according to a wide-ranging April report by state health authorities.

The state’s latest data dump provides a look at paralytic shellfish poisoning in Alaska between the years 1993 and 2021. Paralytic shellfish poisoning is an illness caused by a marine toxin that’s spread by harmful algal blooms. It’s serious, sometimes fatal, and most commonly found in butter clams and blue mussels. According to the latest data from the state Department of Health and Social Services, it has started to be more common year-round and not just in warmer months.

Andie Wall, an environmental coordinator at the tribal health nonprofit Kodiak Area Native Association, said commercially harvested shellfish has to be tested for PSP toxins before it can be sold to customers.

“But there’s no state testing program for subsistence harvest,” Wall said.

Statewide, 53% of PSP cases were among Alaska Natives. Wall said the gap in subsistence testing is a big deal in coastal communities across the state — including Kodiak, where digging clams is a popular sunny day pastime and clams are an important food source.

Cases on Kodiak comprised 25% of statewide incidents of the illness. Areas in Southeast Alaska — like Juneau, Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island — also recorded high case rates.

“Shellfish are an important subsistence resource to a lot of people around the state and to just say ‘don’t collect shellfish, don’t harvest shellfish,’ it’s not feasible,” she said.

KANA was awarded a federal grant from the Bureau of Indian Affairs back in 2018 to monitor beaches on Kodiak Island for high levels of toxins. And the public could send in locally harvested clams and mussels to the organization as part of the program.

KANA would ship the samples to the Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research in Sitka for testing free of charge, and they would let people know if their shellfish was safe to eat — per guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration — based on the levels of toxins detected. But the program’s funding ran out at the end of last year, and KANA hasn’t been able to restart testing since.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office announced in March that $50,000 in federal stopgap funds were included in the omnibus spending package to jumpstart the program. KANA won’t receive the funds and won’t be able to start testing again until September.

Meanwhile, the latest state data also showed a 77% decline in reported cases of PSP across Alaska over the last four years. Wall said that might not paint a full picture of what’s going on.

“The question there is: Is that from people not eating it? Is that from people losing this important resource or is that from increased testing?” Wall said. “I don’t know the answer to that. I hope one day it will be the increased testing.”

Subsistence harvesters on Kodiak Island can still send their local shellfish to SEATOR for $75. Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation also provides testing for a fee.

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