There is a heightened urgency in western Alaska to know more, and sooner, about potential harmful algal blooms in the area.
This summer, a research vessel that traveled through the Bering Strait collecting water samples sent alerts to regional agencies about high levels of a particular type of algae it found.
The vessel Norseman II reported algal blooms near Gambell, Shishmaref, Wales, Brevig Mission, Teller, and Little Diomede.
The type of algae the crew detected was Alexandrium catenella, a phytoplankton that produces a natural biotoxin called saxitoxin which, if consumed in a large amount, causes paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). According to UAF Alaska Sea Grant, PSP can occur when people consume clams, crabs, and other seafood contaminated with high concentrations of saxitoxin. PSP occurs when there is enough saxitoxin eaten to affect the nervous system and block nerve function. If high enough concentrations of saxitoxin are eaten, breathing difficulties and paralysis occur in humans, marine mammals, and seabirds.
As of early December, it was still unknown whether the detected samples contained the harmful saxitoxins because laboratories have yet to return
In November, Emma Pate with Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Office of Environmental Health traveled to Savoonga with Gay Sheffield of UAF Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program. Together, they helped train tribal environmental workers to collect seawater samples to better understand levels of harmful algae throughout the year. They also collected several different kinds of tunicates—commonly called sea peaches and a local seafood delicacy—to send off for sampling.
“Most likely, we’ll get lab results back from the NOAA lab that Alaska Sea Grant is working with before results come in from the samples collected
by scientists during the Norseman II research cruise,” Pate said, explaining that the research cruise collected such a large number of samples that its research laboratory is likely overwhelmed with the testing.
“Usually, research projects have their own process, and they don’t budge on urgency, etc. They go their own steady pace,” Pate said. “But now everything is shifting because of this summer, with the Norseman II’s cruise, to work with all of us on the western Alaska coastline to help us develop an early warning system for the region and to improve the harmful algal toxin testing system so we get results sooner.”
Pate said many groups have expressed interest in partnering with regional tribes and environmental workers to ensure harmful algal bloom testing can be done. Western Alaska groups are keeping an eye on sampling and testing support becoming available as the focus on algal blooms shifts northward with warming waters.