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First Discovery of Algae Toxin in Alaska Marine Mammals

Loss of sea ice, warmer temperatures in the Arctic create favorable conditions


Impacts to marine mammal populations pose food security concerns for northern people.

Courtesy of Alaska Sea Grant

Gay Sheffield, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory agent, is coauthor of a peer reviewed article on the first confirmation of algae toxin presence in marine mammals in arctic Alaska, published in the journal Harmful Algae.


The authors report that loss of sea ice and warmer temperatures in the Arctic are creating favorable conditions for toxin-producing harmful algal blooms, which might contaminate marine resources such as whales and walruses harvested by Alaska residents to feed to their families, throughout northern and western Alaska. While the toxin levels in marine mammals currently do not exceed regulatory limits for food safety, impacts to marine mammal populations pose food security concerns for northern people.


The two most common algal toxins are domoic acid and saxitoxin. In 2015, both biotoxins caused significant illness and mortality in marine mammals along the US Pacific coast. Their recent discovery in the Arctic highlights the need for constant communication and monitoring.


Sheffield provided samples for the study from ice-associated seals both harvested for subsistence and stranded dead in the Bering Strait region. The research was a collaborative effort between government agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, organizations, coastal communities, and hunters.


At Sheffield’s request, NOAA has agreed to translate a press release they issued into Russian, so it can be shared with neighbors on the western side of the Bering Strait.


“We can put it on the Internet, we can get it to the Chukotka Native marine mammal hunting associations, coastal communities, as well as their Russian marine biologists,” said Sheffield. “The Bering Strait is a shared waterway, and the populations of marine wildlife, seabirds, fish, clams, walruses, seals, sea lions and whales do not need a passport to travel across the border to either shore. It is ethically responsible to share this new information with our neighbors, and that may help further our understanding of what is happening in our waters throughout the Bering Strait region.”


Shortly after the Harmful Algae article was published, members of the US Marine Mammal Commission toured the Nome region to hear concerns from local hunters regarding marine mammals. Sheffield assisted in hosting MMC members by briefing them on marine mammal concerns and arranging meetings with community members and tribal councils throughout the Bering Strait region. Issues cited by residents include disease, decrease in ice, increased noise with more industrial ship traffic, and algal toxins. The MMC is an independent government agency that provides external review of marine mammal conservation policies of NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


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