Alaska News

Poisoning by crab ruled out in Haines man's death

A Haines commercial fisherman with a suspected case of paralytic shellfish poisoning who died in June did not die from the illness, according to his family and the state Department of Health and Social Services.

The department says all of the man's symptoms were consistent with PSP, and that he was the fifth person across the state to fall ill to the poison from seafood in June. But after the state medical examiner conducted an autopsy, his death is not considered to have been caused by the illness, officials said.

The man's family has identified him as John Michael Saunders, 57, who died several days after eating Dungeness crab caught near the Chilkat Inlet of Lynn Canal at a large Haines gathering.

Saunders' wife, Kate, says the medical examiner concluded he died from heart disease. The report she got says the death was likely the result of arrhythmia due to previous severe heart damage from a series of small, undetected heart attacks, she said.

"When he had the first episode, it could have been triggered by PSP at that point -- the very first episode of the arrhythmia that he was having -- but they can't find any in his system at this point," Saunders said. "It's heart disease."

No one else who ate crab caught at the same time reported any symptoms, according to DHSS.

After eating the crabs on June 18, Saunders experienced tingling in his lips, numbness in his body, weakness and poor coordination. He was medevacked to Juneau, where his symptoms improved. He returned home on June 21 and died that night.


Subsequent testing of Haines-area Dungeness crabs by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation determined only minor levels of PSP were present and that the levels found in the guts are not a health concern.

Health officials this week said the fisherman and a Juneau woman who also died in June after eating contaminated cockles continue to be listed as PSP cases, though they are not being counted as deaths caused by the poison.

"They can be counted as a PSP case because, like I said, they had symptoms consistent with PSP and they had a history of consuming something that can lead to PSP," said Greg Wilkinson, a spokesman for DHSS.

The poison isn't normally found in crab meat, but it can be found in the guts because crabs eat shellfish.

Health officials warn not to eat the guts of recreationally or subsistence-caught crabs. Commercially sold shellfish are regularly tested for the toxin and are considered safe.

Find James Halpin online at or call him at 257-4589.