Building Shellfish Testing Capabilities to Keep Alaskans Safe
By Adom Yusuf , associate specialist , Food Safety ; Rhodel Bradshaw , senior specialist , Food Safety and Robyn Randolph , senior specialist , Food Laboratory Accreditation
Imagine going to a popular fishing spot or swimming destination and seeing lush hues of green or red film floating on the water ’ s surface . Although the colors may be beautiful , it often signifies the presence of algae in bloom . When conditions are ideal — sunlight , slow-moving water and increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus occasionally from agricultural runoff — harmful algal blooms ( HABs ) containing cyanobacteria can occur . 1 , 5 Due to their potential impact on the environment and human health , many public health laboratories are tasked with monitoring the growth of these HABs . 1
In addition to creating dead zones by using up oxygen and nutrient supplies , HABs produce damaging toxins that can bio-accumulate in submarine filter feeders , such as clams and mollusks . 1 , 5 As a result , humans who consume contaminated clams and mollusks can develop illnesses that may progress into paralysis and death . Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is the most common and severe form of all shellfish poisonings . 2 Although this poisoning occurs worldwide , cases are more frequent in temperate waters on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America , including Alaska . 2
Involving Local Communities in Surveillance
The Alaska Division of Environmental Health Food Safety and Sanitation Program monitors commercial shellfish production and mandates biotoxin monitoring of shellfish and shellfish products within the state . Because of the mandate , the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation ( DEC ) Environmental Health Laboratory in Anchorage must prioritize toxin testing commercial samples of shellfish . 4
In order to better serve southeast Alaskan tribal communities , the Southeast Alaskan Tribal Toxins ( SEATT ) partnership
was formed “ to reduce the risk of harmful
A Tanner Crab burrows into sand for camouflage in Southeast Alaska . Photo : Getty Images
algal blooms by assessing the beaches and shellfish that the state lab could not test .” 6 With 11 different municipalities within the program , SEATT protects individual communities by issuing communitywide alerts in the event of a high-level toxin finding in local shellfish , as well as organizing “ Eyes on the Water ” workshops detailing how to identify a HAB and advise on potential dangers of consuming shellfish . 6
Still , challenges remained , and more was needed to protect the community . For example , transporting samples to the DEC laboratory was costly , and the tribe would wait several days to receive sample results due in part to the state-mandated commercial shellfish testing . In 2015 , the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Laboratory ( STAERL ) was established to assist local residents who were harvesting shellfish from local waters for personal consumption .
To assist with building STAERL ’ s capabilities , it turned to the DEC laboratory to serve as mentor . The National Shellfish Sanitation Program ( NSSP ) -accredited-DEC laboratory provided their forms to use as templates , as well as general advice as STAERL stood up analytical tests for paralytic shellfish toxins and domoic acid , which causes Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning . DEC provided STAERL with shellfish tissue samples for use in comparison testing and verification studies 4 .
As climate change continues to raise the ocean temperatures , it is safe to assume that HABs will continue to pose a threat to Alaskans and others worldwide . STAERL ’ s analytical capabilities will now allow thousands of individuals harvesting for personal use to test their shellfish for toxins and hopefully reduce the overall rate of illnesses from harmful algal blooms and paralytic shellfish poisoning . n
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . Harmful Algal Bloom ( HAB ) -Associated Illness ( Saltwater Algal Blooms ). Illness and Symptoms : Marine ( Saltwater ) Algal Blooms | Harmful Algal Blooms | CDC . 2021 , April 19 . Available from : https :// www . cdc . gov / habs / illnesssymptoms-marine
Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research . Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab . Sitka Tribe of Alaska Environmental Research Lab . ( n . d .). Available from https :// www . seator . org / lab /
14 LAB MATTERS Fall / Winter 2021