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Harmful Algae Toxins Found In 13 Alaskan Marine Animals

Feb 15, 2016 11:41 AM EST
Stranded Humpback Whale
A stranded humpback whale carcass in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. These whales are one of the many found with staggering levels of algae toxins in their bodies.
(Photo : Kathy Burek-Huntington/Alaska Veterinary and Pathology Services)

Harmful algae toxins have been found in as many as 13 marine animals living in Alaska, according to a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Researchers examined the stomach content, urine and feces of whales, walruses, sea lions, seals, porpoises and sea otters in the search of two types of toxins: domoic acid and saxitoxin. 

"What really surprised us was finding these toxins so widespread in Alaska, far north of where they have been previously documented in marine mammals," Kathi Lefebvre, study leader and a NOAA Fisheries research scientist, said in a news release. "However, we do not know whether the toxin concentrations found in marine mammals in Alaska were high enough to cause health impacts to those animals. It's difficult to confirm the cause of death of stranded animals. But we do know that warming trends are likely to expand blooms, making it more likely that marine mammals could be affected in the future."

For their study, experts from the Wildlife Algal-toxin Research and Response Network for the West Coast (WARRN-West) examined samples of 905 marine mammals that were stranded or harvested in Alaska from 2004 to 2013.

Algal toxin poisoning among sea lions has been a common occurrence in Central California since 1998. The recent study, however, is the first to document the presence of harmful algae from the south region of Alaska to the Arctic Ocean.

While Pacific walrus showed the highest concentrations of both toxins, researchers found that as a whole the levels of these algal toxins were well below the seafood safety regulatory limits -- but that doesn't mean humans should not be cautious about the seafood they consume. 

Study co-author Gay Sheffield warns that bearded seals and walruses may contain contaminated clams in their stomachs suggesting the animals -- a delicacy in western and northern Alaska -- may not be completely safe for human consumption. However, it is less likely that animal parts such as muscles and blubber contain toxin levels that pose a threat to human health. So far, authorities have not made any changes in the food safety guidelines of the Alaska Department of Health.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Harmful Algae

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