Shellfish poisoning suspected in Haines fisherman's death

Megan Holland

A Haines commercial fisherman has become the second Alaskan in less than a week to die from a suspected case of paralytic shellfish poisoning, said the state Department of Health and Social Services.

He is the fifth Alaskan to fall ill to the poison from seafood this month.

John Michael Saunders, 57, was taken to the Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau on Saturday after eating Dungeness crab at a large Haines gathering, his family and state officials said. But after he left the hospital and returned home, he was overcome with symptoms again and died around 5 a.m. Tuesday.

Saunders' body is being sent to Anchorage for an autopsy and lab tests will be conducted at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to confirm the shellfish poisoning, said Department of Health spokesman Greg Wilkinson.

All of Saunders' symptoms were consistent with PSP, said state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin.

McLaughlin urged Alaskans to stay away from all personally harvested shellfish. "You are basically playing Russian roulette if you personally harvest shellfish in Alaska waters," he said.

He also said to stay away from crab guts. While crab meat does not contain the poison, the guts, or viscera, of crab can because crab eat shellfish, health officials said.

The toxin involved in paralytic shellfish poisoning is 1,000 times more lethal than cyanide, McLaughlin said.

Commercially sold shellfish are regularly tested for the toxin and are considered safe.

Last week, paralytic shellfish poisoning killed Dottie Lindoff, 57, of Juneau, after she ate cockles harvested from Auke Bay.

Lindoff was the first person to die from PSP in Alaska since 1997.

Three people in Kodiak also became ill earlier this month from paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The state is posting warning signs at beaches where the poisoned shellfish and crabs were found, the state said.

When asked why the uptick this year, Robert Pressley, seafood program manager with the Department of Environmental Conservation, said he didn't know. "I can't logically with any good science answer that question," he said.

The outbreak may be connected to recent low tides that have brought out more recreational gatherers, he said.

Saunders ate the poisoned crab at a large gathering in Haines, his wife said. Other people at the gathering were also eating the same food but no one else seems to have fallen ill, the state said.

The crab Saunders ate was caught off Jenkins Rock near the Chilkat Inlet of Lynn Canal, the Department of Health said. The DEC plans to test commercial crabs caught from the area for PSP.

Kate Saunders said her husband immediately felt tingling of his lips after he ate the crab but didn't think anything of it -- and didn't tell anyone about it. Even the next morning at breakfast he had tingling lips but didn't think about possible shellfish poisoning, she said.

Kate Saunders said that even though mussels and clams blanket the beaches in Haines, no one harvests them. "You just don't do it," she said, because of the possible poison. She didn't know that crab guts also carried the poison.

It was about 14 hours after her husband ate the bad crab that they realized he was really sick. "That's when he started to crash and had a problem breathing," she said. He was rushed to the Juneau hospital.

By Monday afternoon, he was feeling better and was anxious to get back to Haines for a salmon fishing opening.

"He was concerned," Kate Saunders said. "It's salmon season. It just opened on Sunday. He wanted to get home. He already missed the first day of the opening."

Paralytic shellfish poisoning is caused by poisons concentrated in bivalve fish including clams, mussels, cockles, geoducks, oysters, snails and scallops, according to the DEC. The organisms feed on naturally occurring microorganisms that cause the toxin.

The poison is a neuro-toxin that paralyzes parts of the body and can paralyze the respiratory muscles. Symptoms of poisoning can begin immediately or up to several hours after ingestion, McLaughlin said. Symptoms include tingling of the lips, skin or fingertips, shortness of breath, dry mouth, double vision, diarrhea, dizziness and numbness.

After eating the poison, it can take from minutes to a day for the symptoms to show, the state Department of Environmental Conservation says.

Typically, symptoms begin about an hour after consumption, McLaughlin said.

Those who suspect they have paralytic shellfish poisoning should induce vomiting immediately to get the poison out of the stomach and go to the emergency room.

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