National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2022

Paralytic shellfish toxins in Alaskan Arctic food webs during the anomalously warm ocean conditions of 2019 and estimated toxin doses to Pacific walruses and bowhead whales

Lefebvre, K.A., E. Fachon, E.K. Bowers, D.G. Kimmel, J.A. Snyder, R. Stimmelmayr, J.M. Grebmeier, S. Kibler, R. Hardison, D.M. Anderson, D. Kulis, J. Murphy, J.C. Gann, D. Cooper, L.B. Eisner, J.T. Duffy-Anderson, G. Sheffield, R.S. Pickart, A. Mounsey, M.L. Willis, P. Stabeno, and E. Siddon

Harmful Algae, 114, 102205, doi: 10.1016/j.hal.2022.102205, View online (2022)

Climate change-related ocean warming and reduction in Arctic sea ice extent, duration and thickness increase the risk of toxic blooms of the dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella in the Alaskan Arctic. This algal species produces neurotoxins that impact marine wildlife health and cause the human illness known as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). This study reports Paralytic Shellfish Toxin (PST) concentrations quantified in Arctic food web samples that include phytoplankton, zooplankton, benthic clams, benthic worms, and pelagic fish collected throughout summer 2019 during anomalously warm ocean conditions. PSTs (saxitoxin equivalents, STX eq.) were detected in all trophic levels with concentrations above the seafood safety regulatory limit (80 μg STX eq. 100 g−1) in benthic clams collected offshore on the continental shelf in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and Bering Seas. Most notably, toxic benthic clams (Macoma calcarea) were found north of Saint Lawrence Island where Pacific walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) are known to forage for a variety of benthic species, including Macoma. Additionally, fecal samples collected from 13 walruses harvested for subsistence purposes near Saint Lawrence Island during March to May 2019, all contained detectable levels of STX, with fecal samples from two animals (78 and 72 μg STX eq. 100 g−1) near the seafood safety regulatory limit. In contrast, 64% of fecal samples from zooplankton-feeding bowhead whales (n = 9) harvested between March and September 2019 in coastal waters of the Beaufort Sea near Utqiaġvik (formerly Barrow) and Kaktovik were toxin-positive, and those levels were significantly lower than in walruses (max bowhead 8.5 μg STX eq. 100 g−1). This was consistent with the lower concentrations of PSTs found in regional zooplankton prey. Maximum ecologically-relevant daily toxin doses to walruses feeding on clams and bowhead whales feeding on zooplankton were estimated to be 21.5 and 0.7 μg STX eq. kg body weight−1 day−1, respectively, suggesting that walruses had higher PST exposures than bowhead whales. Average and maximum STX doses in walruses were in the range reported previously to cause illness and/or death in humans and humpback whales, while bowhead whale doses were well below those levels. These findings raise concerns regarding potential increases in PST/STX exposure risks and health impacts to Arctic marine mammals as ocean warming and sea ice reduction continue.

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