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The Risk Of PSP In Unalaska


Think twice before eating blue mussels, butter clams or other shellfish dug in Unalaska. Why? Statewide Alaska is seeing high levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). And when humans ingest it -- especially at high levels -- they can get a whole host of side effects.

“Tingling, numbness, nausea, headache, there can be a floating sensation," Missy Good said. "Shortness of breath, weakness to paralysis of extremities -- your arms, legs can start to get paralyzed -- to complete respiratory paralysis.”

Good works for the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. She says PSP effects human nerve cells. But because it’s water soluble eventually your body will flush it out.

Back in April, she collected mussels at Little Priest Rock. And they showed a level of PSP -- over three times greater than the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) limit for human consumption. The FDA says shellfish is safe to be eaten, if it has less than 80 micrograms per 100 grams of shellfish tissue.

Any shellfish sold in stores -- for human consumption -- is tested and must meet those FDA standards. But subsistence and recreationally harvested shellfish is not usually tested. And the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is so swamped with testing all the commercially harvested shellfish that no one in a rural community can rely on them.

But there are field test kits. They’re called Gillette tests and Good says they’re kind of like a pregnancy test.

“This test will tell you whether the toxin is present or not," Good said. "It doesn’t give you a level of presence.”

And like a pregnancy test, they are not always accurate.

“From testing that was done in Kodiak, they found a 50 percent false [positive]," Good said. "So, if it wasn’t there, it was usually pretty accurate. But if it was there, you got a fifty-fifty percent chance whether it actually is or not. So are you going to go harvest something and depend on that field test? Probably not.”

With warming ocean temperatures, the risk for paralytic shellfish poisoning can linger all year round. 

Zoë Sobel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2019. She returned to KUCB after a year living in Nepal and Malaysia as a Luce Scholar. She then returned to KUCB as a ProPublica reporter August of 2020 through August of 2021.