Reserve Monitoring Saves Lives
In 2015, Alaska’s Kachemak Bay experienced its first harmful algal bloom (HAB) in 10 years. In response, the Kachemak Bay Reserve initiated an alert system that is saving the lives of shellfish consumers and helping local businesses respond to the challenge.
Consumers of HAB-affected shellfish can experience paralytic shellfish poisoning with symptoms that include tingling, lightheadedness, numbness, and even death. This threatens public health and the state’s economy. Many rural and indigenous Alaskans participate in the subsistence shellfish harvest, which yields more than 36 million pounds of wild food annually. Overall, Alaskan shellfish generate an estimated $12.8 billion in economic output each year.
The 2015 bloom prompted the Kachemak Bay Reserve to bring community partners together to discuss how to improve local monitoring and protect public health. Today, the Reserve’s Community Monitoring Program keeps tabs on toxic phytoplankton levels at 31 sites in Kachemak Bay, Lower Cook Inlet, the greater Resurrection Bay area, and Prince William Sound.
The Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team in Seldovia monitoring seabird die offs. From left: Stephen Payton and Michael Opheim (Seldovia Village Tribe), Brooke Faulkner (undergrad intern at Kachemak Bay Reserve), Kayla Schommer (Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network), Jan Yaeger (Seldovia Village Tribe), and Rosie Robinson and Steve Baird (Kachemak Bay Reserve).
The Reserve publishes weekly monitoring reports for communities, the state’s shellfish-poisoning communication team, and recreational and subsistence shellfish consumers. During a harmful algal bloom in 2017—which saw the most toxic shellfish ever recorded in Kachemak Bay— the Reserve was able to issue an early warning for Homer Harbor. While there were six reported illnesses potentially connected to poisoned shellfish, experts suggest it may have been much worse without the warnings.
“We were able to provide information on the safety of wild shellfish to harvesters, subsistence users, and commercial farmers that they would not have had,” observes Rose Robinson, a biologist with the Reserve. “Although oyster farmers have their shellfish regulated thoroughly by the Department of Environmental Conservation, they don’t receive information to warn them about potential threats like harmful algal blooms.”
HABs remain a serious concern for Alaska, and as sea temperatures rise, more frequent blooms are expected. The Kachemak Bay Reserve continues to foster partnerships with communities and agencies that are essential to monitoring the problem. Reserve staff work with Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game Sport Fish to monitor toxin levels in razor clams in Lower Cook Inlet and with the Seldovia Village Tribe and others to monitor a beach for seabird die offs. As part of the Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network, Reserve staff also are building a statewide approach to HAB research, monitoring, outreach, and response.
Kachemak Bay Reserve’s Rosie Robinson and Holly Smith from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game record razor clam measurements. Collaborations have been key to monitoring and responding to harmful algal blooms in Alaska.