Jamestown Tribe researches shellfish toxins

The waters of Sequim Bay seem clean, with visibility for several feet within the nearshore. But biotoxins lurk within the waters, plaguing the Strait of Juan de Fuca each summer and fall.

The Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe is concerned about these naturally occurring toxins that show up regularly in shellfish tissues following algae blooms. The toxins don’t harm shellfish, but if consumed by humans, it can lead to illness or even death.

To learn more about these toxins and the effects on shellfish, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe has been studying water conditions every year between May and October for the past four years.

“We want to better understand how frequently these toxins are showing up in the water and develop an early warning system for the presence of these toxin-producing algae blooms,” said Aleta Erickson, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe’s marine ecologist.

Using a special microscope, tribal staff is identifying and photographing the organisms found in the waters that could be contributing to the problem. The tribe is also studying to see if weather patterns and excess nutrients, such as those lawn fertilizers, are contributing to the problem.

“The frequency of shellfish closures due to high tissue levels of the poisons saxitoxin and domoic acid, which are produced by dinoflagellates and diatoms, have been increasing in recent years,” Erickson said. “It has been suggested that increases in nutrient loads in marine waters and changes in water temperature and circulation are possible causes.”

Shellfish closures in Sequim Bay have hit citizens of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe hard both financially and culturally because much of the intertidal acreage at the head of the bay is owned by the tribe and bivalves there are actively managed and harvested for commercial and subsistence use.

The project is conducted in partnership with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northwest Fishery Science Center. This is the fourth year the tribe has been working on the project and the collaboration between the two has served as a model for the recent expansion of the study into the Puget Sound and Hood Canal areas.

For more information, contact: Aleta Erickson, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe marine ecologist, at (360) 681-4630 or [email protected].