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Researchers share Alaska Forum award for Aleutian toxin monitoring


Anchorage, Alaska—The Alaska Forum on the Environment presented its 2012 Outstanding Achievement Award to researchers who led the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) Project.

The award was presented to researchers Bruce Wright, senior scientist with the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association, and to Ray RaLonde, aquaculture specialist with the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

With funding from the North Pacific Research Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the researchers conducted the first extensive community-based monitoring for harmful algal blooms and PSP in waters around the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands region in Alaska, and Bering Island in Russia.

They developed methods for communities to monitor and track marine toxins in connection with climate change observations, and published their findings in near real time for residents and scientists. Overall, the project helped communities reliant on subsistence shellfish harvests better respond to the health threat and minimize the risk of poisoning.

The project also improved understanding of the distribution of paralytic shellfish toxins and the reliability of local and traditional knowledge in the Aleut region.

Researchers found paralytic shellfish poison toxin throughout the Alaska monitoring area; however, the toxin was not found around Russia's Bering Island. PSP also was detected in April, a month scientists did not expect because normally cold water would inhibit the toxin's growth.

"This indicates that climate change is a likely driver of the increase of occurrences of PSP in the Bering Sea region," said Wright.

Wright said environmental changes are having a significant impact on subsistence shellfish harvests. He said local and traditional knowledge is fragmented and cannot equip local residents with sufficient knowledge to safely harvest shellfish.

"We also think this project provides the baseline information that communities need to advocate for a more comprehensive monitoring program for marine toxins not just here in the Aleutians, but across the state," said RaLonde.

PSP is a naturally occurring toxin caused by a marine organism, called a dinoflagellate, that accumulates in the digestive tissues and sometimes the meat of shellfish. While it does not hurt the shellfish, people who eat tainted shellfish can become extremely ill and sometimes die.

The only sure way to avoid PSP is to not eat untested shellfish. The state of Alaska does not monitor or certify beaches as safe for shellfish harvesting.

The only safe shellfish are those available for sale in the supermarket or seafood store. All shellfish legally sold in Alaska must pass a stringent test that screens for PSP.

The award was presented during the 14th annual Alaska Forum on the Environment's annual conference held Feb. 6–10 in Anchorage.

The Alaska Sea Grant College Program is a statewide marine research, education, communication, and extension service at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. Alaska Sea Grant is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 
The Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program is a statewide university extension and technical assistance program that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy Alaska's marine and coastal resources. 
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