Alaska too big for PSP testing

Posted: Thursday, June 24, 2010

Testing beaches where shellfish is recreationally harvested for the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning would be impractical in Alaska, said Seafood Program Manager Robert Pressley, because testing needs to be done frequently and Alaska's coastline is very long.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Two Southeast Alaskans died in less than a week of suspected PSP poisoning after consuming personally harvested shellfish. There have been five cases diagnosed across the state, with the other three being in the Kodiak area.

The state does not certify beaches or test for subsistence harvesting of shellfish, although commercial harvests are regularly tested and considered safe.

Pressley said his department "doesn't have the capacity" to certify recreational or subsistence harvest areas.

"We have no other choice but to advocate the general public does not harvest and consume shellfish from recreational beaches or any that have not been tested," he said.

Alaska's coastline runs longer than the coastline of the continental United States, he said, contributing to the difficulties of testing.

Other states conduct laboratory testing on shellfish samples year-round, alerting the public when harvesting for personal use might not be safe.

Washington and Oregon have similar programs that test shellfish samples regularly and, when PSP or other harmful toxins are found to be present, alert the public through 24-hour telephone recordings, websites, media releases and signs near beaches.

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation employees spent time over the weekend alerting the public of the dangers of eating personally harvested shellfish. Environmental Health Officer Jason Wiard hung nearly 50 signs in the Juneau area alone.

Commercial shellfish are tested after they are harvested in Alaska. Samples are sent to an Anchorage lab and are then sent to market once certified as being safe.

Pressley said a similar situation would have to be set up in Alaska since a reliable field test is not available.

"You can see just how impossible that is from a practical standpoint," he said.

Washington and Oregon state officials could not provide financial information Wednesday for their PSP testing programs.

Washington has more than 70 "early warning sites" where mussels are regularly collected and tested, and increase their screening and warning programs when given a sign of algae blooms that cause PSP, Marine Biotoxin Coordinator Frank Cox said. The state works with county employees, volunteers and local tribes to collect samples and ship them to a Seattle lab.

The system works much the same in Oregon.

"We usually get some kind of indication a spike is heading our way and increase the number of sites where we sample from," said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which manages the program with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

In Washington, program managers combine information gathered for commercial, recreational and subsistence testing to generate public warnings, Cox said.

Juneau resident Dottie Lindoff died at Bartlett Regional Hospital Thursday after eating cockles collected at Point Louisa near Auke Bay. A family member declined to comment on the circumstances surrounding her death until the results of an autopsy are available in a few weeks. A state epidemiology report says Lindoff, who was 57, died of cardiopulmonary arrest.

John Michael Saunders, of Haines, died Tuesday at his home after being released from Bartlett the day before. He had been diagnosed with PSP at the hospital after eating the guts of a Dungeness crab Friday that was caught in front of Jenkins Rock near the Chilkat Inlet of Lynn Canal in Haines.

Crab meat is generally thought to be safe from PSP, but it is known to infect the viscera. No one else who ate the crab suffered symptoms.

The results of a state-ordered autopsy on Saunders' body will be released as early as next week, Department of Health and Social Services Spokesman Greg Wilkinson said in an e-mail.

Tests on crab harvested at the Haines location were also ordered but results were not available Wednesday. Samples of cockles collected from the Juneau location showed "extremely high" toxin levels, Wilkinson wrote.

There have been five reported cases of suspected paralytic shellfish poisoning in Alaska in the past two weeks. Three people were sickened earlier this month after eating butter clams from Chiniack Beach on Kodiak Island.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or

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