Alaska Toxic Algae Event Endangers Public Health
In Alaska, scientists supported by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science are monitoring a massive and unusual outbreak of the toxic alga Alexandrium and its related potent toxin that can accumulate in shellfish. When toxic shellfish are consumed they can cause a severe and sometimes deadly human illness called paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). To date four people have been hospitalized and at least 13 others have been sickened with symptoms of PSP.
All illnesses to date have come after consuming recreational or subsistence harvested shellfish in southeast Alaska. PSP is a public health emergency, and the hospitalization of a man who ate clams dug from a public beach near Ketchikan led to a special state warning in mid-May. An epidemiological investigation was triggered on June 7 after a second man showed PSP symptoms from eating cockles harvested on an Annette Island beach. On June 9, the state issued a strongly worded statement warning the public that “eating a single mussel could result in death.” NOAA Weather Service Alaska is using NOAA Weather Radio and the Alaska Weather television program to help reach Alaskan communities to warn about the dangers of eating shellfish harvested for subsistence or recreation.
NOAA and non-NOAA Alaska response network members are currently documenting the extent and severity of this major red tide bloom and its impacts. Response results are being shared with Alaska state agencies to enable health officials to rapidly respond to this outbreak and provide an early warning about potential PSP risk to commercial shellfish operations regulated by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. This response is supporting the Alaska PSP testing program for commercially grown shellfish. Commercially grown shellfish is tested and considered safe.
NCCOS is supporting rapid response efforts of the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Partnership (AHAB), a network led by the University of Alaska system that coordinates sampling and data sharing among a network of shellfish farmers, native shellfish harvesters, and government health officials and fisheries regulators. NOAA algal bloom experts and labs are providing support for rapid sample analysis.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is supporting this response and HAB research funded by the North Pacific Research Board is also leveraged. NOAA, AHAB, Alaska Sea Grant and state partners are working to heighten public awareness about the dangers of eating non-tested shellfish.
To learn more about PSP in Alaska visit:
- Alaska Department of Health and Social Services
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Fact Sheet on Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning
CSCOR partners in this Alaska Event Response include:
- University of Alaska Southeast
- University of Alaska Fairbanks
- Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
- NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center
- NOAA Phytoplankton Monitoring Program
- NOAA Kasitsna Bay Lab
- North Pacific Research Board Project
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Health