Studies for fishermen's health; first yearly shellfish poisoning

How much are fishermen affected by long term health problems like hearing loss, lack of sleep and high blood pressure? A pilot study aims to find out and researchers are using the 500-plus members of the Copper River salmon driftnet fleet as test subjects.

“The Copper River fishing season lasts five months and most of the fleet is very digitally connected so it seemed a great fit,” said Torie Baker, a Sea Grant Marine Advisory Agent in Cordova.

Baker is the point person for the project being done by the School of Public Health at the University of Washington and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, which is funding the study.

“The genesis stemmed from wanting to take a proactive look at the contributing health factors and health issues that are in commercial fishing,” Baker explained. “They’re trying to compare what the offseason health habits and behaviors are versus what might be sacrificed or stressed during the fishing season. So it’s set up as a pre- and mid-season effort.”

The things the researchers are interested in include hearing loss, the presence or absence of hypertension, the amount of exercise that can be documented during the offseason and the fishing season, and sleep and fatigue management.

“That is a really big one,” Baker said. “The big body of literature on fatigue and sleep management in the marine world is largely informed by tests and research done in the military. There are a lot of folks in high risk occupations, such as airline pilots or truckers and ship captains where fatigue is a big driving force in productivity and safety management.”

The first part of the study was a basic online survey that ended May 8. Another will be done in mid-July. At that time, volunteer fishermen also will take a basic health exam.

Many also are wearing Fitbit watches to track steps and activity, and most importantly, to remotely monitor sleep behavior over a three-day span.

 “It will be interesting to be able to do some remote sampling and see how those devices work in an outdoor, very physical industry to learn how that technology might inform researchers,” Baker said.

She called the study an “intriguing first attempt” at helping an industry that

 from a health perspective, hasn’t had much attention.

“The ultimate goal,” Baker said, “is to learn ways to reduce risks and keep fishermen healthy.

Clam diggers beware!

The state confirmed the first case of paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP, was confirmed this month near Ketchikan prompting reminders that it’s the time of year to pay close attention to shellfish advisories.

PSP is caused by tiny marine organisms in algae blooms often referred to incorrectly as red tides. The toxin is commonly found in all kinds of clams, and neither cooking nor freezing neutralizes it.

PSP attacks the nervous system and it can be a quick killer.

“It’s a thousand times more toxic than strychnine,” said Ray RaLonde, a long-time aquaculture specialist with Alaska Sea Grant in Anchorage. “It often starts out with a tingling around the face and extremities, the hands. Then it works its way through a number of symptoms, blurred vision, double vision, nausea, ultimately, paralysis and cardiac arrest. Death is very quick.”

PSP is a tricky array of 24 different toxins, some deadly, some not, RaLonde said. Toxicity levels can differ from one clam hole to another on the same beach, and change with the tide. RaLonde says PSP levels also differ between popular clams.

“The two most likely to be confused are littleneck clams, called steamers, and butter clams,” RaLonde explained. “Both are about the same size, so it’s important to be aware of the differences between the two. A littleneck clam is relatively nontoxic compared to a butter clam, which can retain the toxin for two years, so you can get toxicity off-season. Both can be dug in the same hole in the tide flats, but butter clams tend to be a little deeper.”

No one is sure why, but Kodiak Island and parts of the South Peninsula have some of the highest PSP levels in the world.

“The PSP blooms on occasion can be quite intense. In one incident, the level on blue mussels reached 20,000 micrograms. The FDA level is 80 micrograms,” RaLonde said.

Some clam diggers test for PSP with their tongues, he said, and believe that if it tingles, it’s not safe. But from tongue to tummy, toxicity can increase six-fold.

“To put that in perspective, at 20,000 micrograms I tell people if you eat a blue mussel your life is worth 11 cents. A dime and a penny worth of mussel weight and you just got a lethal dose,” he said.

The state strictly monitors all commercially caught shellfish catches for PSP, but that is not the case for recreational clam diggers. The Alaska Department of Epidemiology claims those folks are playing “Alaskan Roulette.”

Fish watch

Alaska’s 2015 salmon season officially got underway on May 14 with the first 12-hour opener at Copper River. The forecast calls for a catch of 2.2 million sockeye salmon and about 6,000 kings.

A dozen trawlers are tying up for the year early due to tripping the 2,700 chinook salmon bycatch cap in Central and Western Gulf groundfish fisheries. Only half of the allotted cod catch and 10 percent of the flatfish were taken when the closure was called last week, said NOAA Fisheries. The closure is set to last until the end of the year, although a re-opening is set for consideration Oct. 1.

This is the first year for chinook bycatch caps in the federally managed (non-pollock) trawl fisheries — the total cap for the Gulf of Alaska is 7,500 salmon. The pollock and rockfish fleets are far from their caps and are still fishing.

Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit or contact [email protected] for information.

11/20/2016 - 9:19am