The State of Alaska plans to start monitoring recreational beaches for Paralytic Shellfish Toxins in a few communities this year. It will be the first time the Department of Environmental conservation tests NON-commercially harvested clams and other shellfish for the dangerous substance.

According to Program coordinator Dave Lowell, the state wants local involvement, “….where the community participates in terms of collecting samples and shipping them to us for testing. Then the community is the resource that grows with the knowledge of the PSP toxins and helps publicize the results and lets consumers and harvesters know if there’s a hazard”

Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning is a serious and sometimes deadly illness that can result from ingesting cooked or uncooked bi-valves like clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops that contain the toxin. The State regularly tests commercially- grown shellfish for the toxin. However, there have been a number of reported cases of PSP from personally-harvested shellfish. This has been a particularly bad year for PSP in Southeast. Scientists found exceptionally high concentrations of the toxin in samples around Ketchikan last summer and just this winter there were at least two reports of suspected PSP poisoning. State health officials say PSP is not limited to certain months of the year and Lowell is hopeful the recreational shellfish testing program will help raise local awareness about the problem.

“Part of the issues that we have is that a lot of the PSP cases don’t get reported, so we really don’t know how many cases we have out there. And so we are looking for that community effort to build. And then the expensive end of it that has always been a kind of a road block is the actual testing and shipping of the samples. And so a lot of the funding that we have is going to support that so the community doesn’t have to pay for that,” Lowell Says.

Lowell says the legislature approved 400 thousand dollars for the pilot program which is expected to last for four years. The State will choose three communities to participate. There will be one each from Southeast, Southcentral, and Southwest Alaska. Tribal, Muncipal and Borough Governments are all eligible to apply by April 6th.

Meanwhile, the Aleutian Pribilof Island Association is seeking funding for a separate PSP testing program for non-commercial shellfish around the state. APIA senior scientist Bruce Wright says Alaska is the only coastal state affected by red tide without a comprehensive state-run testing program. He’s applied for several federal grants to develop a program that would test shellfish in many more communities. The Association already has its own local testing program.