Bering Strait: Walruses and Saxitoxin

Bering Strait: Walruses and Saxitoxin

late summer/fall 2017

Teamwork was essential to learning more about this event and included: Native Village of Shishmaref, Native Village of Diomede, USCG Aviation Detachment (Kotzebue), Alaska Sea Grant, Kawerak Subsistence Resources Program, Eskimo Walrus Commission, North Slope Dept. of Wildlife Management, NOAA Wildlife Algal Toxin Research and Response Network, Alaska Section of Epidemiology, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, National Park Service, and USFWS Marine Mammals Management.

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This one-page advisory for the public is in response to moderate to high levels of biotoxins detected in the stomach contents and feces of four walruses (3 stranded and 1 harvested) in the Bering Strait region during August and September 2017. Low levels of domoic acid and moderate to high levels of saxitoxin were detected in all samples. Saxitoxin levels were above average compared to recent years.

The findings are of interest in part due to the large number of walruses that washed ashore, as well as a concurrent die-off of seabirds in the area.

Alaska Sea Grant worked collaborative with tribes, federal and state agencies, and others to provide clues as to what may have contributed to the stranding events.

Saxitoxin is one of the biotoxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Saxitoxins are a well-known human health hazard in Alaska and the rest of the U.S. PSP can occur in people when they eat clams, crabs, and other seafood contaminated with saxitoxin. Saxitoxin targets the nervous system and blocks nerve function. If high concentrations of saxitoxin are eaten, breathing difficulties and paralysis occurs in both humans and marine mammals.

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