Alaska Steps Up to Create Better Testing Methods to Make Shellfish Safer

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / Staff / Getty Images 
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They're developing a new testing system. 

Two groups in Alaska are pushing for more efficient ways to regulate the shellfish harvest, in an effort to make sure they arrive on our plates free of toxins.  

In Alaska, there’s no state funded program that monitors the shellfish harvest, despite the fact that eating them puts people at risk for paralytic shellfish poisoning. Shellfish, which are filter feeders (they strain their food out of the water), ingest algae blooms full of neurotoxins, which can cause illness in humans, or even be fatal in extreme cases. Any concentration of 80 micrograms of toxin per 100 grams of shellfish is unsafe for eating.

At most, all the Alaska Division of Public Health can do is strongly discourage noncommercial fishing. To combat the toxic effects of shellfish Alaska Sea Grant and the Sun'aq Tribe of Kodiak – where the highest number of shellfish poisoning cases are reported – are stepping up to create their own testing service. Right now, the FDA only has guidelines for why and how harvesters should test their shellfish, but there is no nationally standardized testing procedure (the National Shellfish Sanitation Program is currently trying to improve shellfish safety with it’s own set of guidelines).

Julie Matweyou, a Marine Advisory Program Agent working with Alaska Sea Grant,  is currently developing a testing kit that  would quickly and accurately measure the toxicity level of shellfish for researchers, and crucially, harvesters, to weed out any catches that aren’t safe to eat. 

"One day we went out, we saw about a three-fold difference in toxins between the sites a half a mile apart," Matweyou told the Kodak Daily Mirror. "So, there's some really complex oceanography driving these dynamics."

Matweyou’s research is much needed, given Alaska’s dominance in the seafood market: In 2015, Alaska produced more than 1 million clams, mussels, and oysters; the state produces around 5 billion tons of seafood total, accounting for more than half of all domestic commercial fishery production.

There’s no timeline yet for when the test kit might be ready, but given that it could make our eating of raw oysters a little safer, it can’t come soon enough.

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