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Alaska must take action now on harmful algal blooms in our changing oceans

  • Author: Bruce Wright
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 2, 2015

For the last 10 years I have been researching harmful algal blooms (HABs) along the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Many Alaskans know about one of the HABs, paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, because people are sickened every year by the toxins from eating contaminated clams, and some Alaskans have died from it. The summers of 2014 and 2015 were noteworthy with record-breaking PSP levels. In 2014 blue mussels in Haines had PSP levels of 21,600 micrograms per 100 grams, exceeding U.S. Food and Drug Administration levels for PSP of 80 micrograms per 100 grams by 270 times. In 2015 Sand Point, Aleutian Islands butter clams exceeded the FDA limit by 82 times with a PSP level of 6580 µg/100g. The increased PSP levels are probably being driven by increased ocean temperatures.

NOAA has reported that during 2014 and 2015, the North Pacific Ocean has been the warmest measured for such a long period of time, with sea surface temperatures as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average. The increased ocean temperatures are warm enough to allow another harmful alga, a single-cell plant called a diatom in the genus Pseudo-nitzschia, to flourish in Alaska waters; this marine phytoplankton produces the neurotoxin called domoic acid. The warmer-than-normal waters are expected to persist; you can expect the harmful algae to persist too. Not many scientists are willing to link this warming to climate change, but warming marine waters are expected as the climate warms.

There's not much we can do about these harmful algal blooms. Global warming won't stop and no technologies are in the works for "controlling" HABs in Alaska. However, we can protect ourselves. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation tests our commercial oysters for PSP and domoic acid and other threats. But the subsistence and personal-use clams, mussels and other shellfish are not tested, making consuming these risky. Besides people, marine life is also at risk from harmful algal blooms, including sea lions, seals, sea otters, whales, marine birds and fish. Our only recourse is to understand what is happening and alter our behaviors.

Some communities have established long-term PSP monitoring programs. So far these have been credited with saving lives while still allowing some safe harvest of clams. Sampling for harmful algal blooms in Alaska is rather simple, and the procedures are available for the ADEC Environmental Health Laboratory. People should not be eating untested bivalves (clams, mussels, oysters, scallops) in Alaska. In addition to testing your own clam harvest, it's high time Alaska establish a comprehensive HABs monitoring program all along the Alaska coastline, something similar to the programs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and California.

What else can we do? We also need to determine the effects of HABs on marine life so we can protect our fisheries and subsistence foods. Recent research has identified domoic acid and PSP in marine mammals in all of Alaska's oceans and seas, from the Gulf of Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. During the summer of 2015 an unusually high number of large whales died in the Gulf of Alaska around Kodiak Island and along the southern Alaska Peninsula. NOAA called it an unusual mortality event. Due to the lack of resources, these floating dead whales were not recovered, and only one was tested with inconclusive results. We need more resources to bear on the problem.

The Japanese have been determined to continue what they refer to as a whale research program during which they harvest hundreds of whales. The Japanese research vessel is well-equipped to recover dead floating whales. We need to understand why these animals are dying; we need the Japanese to help us collect these dead whales and do some real research to determine their cause of death.

The climate talks in Paris are too little, too late to stop HABs in Alaska. The oceans will continue to warm, and PSP and domoic acid are destined to become greater threats. We need to protect ourselves and our fisheries.

Bruce Wright has worked on marine ecology and marine and terrestrial predators in Alaska since 1978. He retired from UAA as a biology professor in 1999, and has since worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in oil spill assessment and done international studies in harmful algal blooms. Wright now is senior scientist for the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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