9.6 Response to the Emerging Algal Toxin Threat in the Arctic

Wednesday, 15 January 2020: 11:30 AM
158 (Boston Convention and Exhibition Center)
Kristine Holderied, NOAA, Homer, AK; and A. Holman, K. Lefebvre, R. Matsui, M. McCammon, and G. Sheffield

Sea birds and their eggs, clams, crabs, fish, and marine mammals are among the dietary staples in Arctic coastal communities. The unprecedented rise in seawater temperature throughout the Bering and Chukchi Seas is bringing a new threat to the security of these food sources - algal toxins. Because this area has no commercial shellfish production, there is no state-led monitoring of Paralytic Shellfish Toxins (PST) or Domoic Acid, despite known regional existence of the phytoplankton species that produce these toxins (Lefebvre et al, 2016). Thus, development and implementation of hazard monitoring, prediction, assessment, and dissemination tools are urgently needed.

Coastal communities in the Arctic are particularly vulnerable to the threat of PST-related illness because of their dependence on shellfish and other marine wildlife for nutritional, economic, and cultural well-being. Coastal Alaska Native populations to the south have been found to be twelve times more likely to be affected by PST than the Alaska population as a whole, because of their greater use of wild foods (Gessner and Schloss 1996). They are also vulnerable due to the regional health care sector lacking experience with recognizing symptoms of algal toxin consumption, the limited capacity of medical facilities to provide supportive measures to those who fall ill, and the logistical challenges in extremely remote coastal communities.

Recent studies in northern regions of Alaska have documented the presence of PST producing phytoplankton species in the Arctic and subarctic with high cell concentrations in waters and extremely high cyst concentrations in Chukchi Sea sediments (Natsuike et al. 2013, NOAA Arctic Research Program and National Marine Fisheries Service funded cruises in 2018). With Arctic ocean temperatures now reaching and exceeding levels known to support blooms and toxin events, public health providers, researchers, and coastal communities are scrambling to set up systems to tackle this emerging coastal hazard.

The Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom Network (AHAB) is helping spearhead the response to the emerging algal toxin threat in the Arctic. Together with assistance from the Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee they have initiated coordination and communication among state and federal regulators, stakeholders, tribal and citizen monitoring groups, and research partners to address regional concerns rising from low level toxin detections in subsistence-harvested marine wildlife, observations of odd behaviors in fish and seabirds, and seabird and ice seal die-offs and/or recruitment failures. Causal links between these events have not yet been made, leading to increasing public health and food security concerns among coastal communities and a need for more scientific data and communication.

This presentation will cover background on algal toxins in Alaska, changes in the Bering and Chukchi Sea ocean conditions, and response actions. Specific efforts to be highlighted will include:

1) Collaborations across the meteorological (including National Weather Service (NWS)), oceanographic, subsistence dependent, and public health communities to rapidly synthesize information and mobilize resources and talent;

2) Efforts to understand the impacts of toxins on multiple species in the food web (the only health standard is for human consumption of shellfish) and cause-effect relationships between them;

3) Educating public health providers to better recognize the hazard, especially in areas where it is a new issue;

4) Development of new technologies for field testing and opportunities to leverage met-ocean prediction capabilities to create tools for hazard/risk assessments; and

5) Leveraging NWS and other information dissemination outlets by AHAB organizations and state/local public health agencies.

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