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Tribe recovering from PSP boom

In the last year and a half, North Kitsap waters have been on a roller coaster ride in the levels of the biotoxin causing Paralytic Shellfish Poison, also know as red tide. There were a higher number of closures last fall and winter, when the biotoxin usually doesn’t make an appearance. This past summer, levels returned to normal, allowing the Suquamish Tribe to recover from what turned out to be a large economic hit caused by the red tide closures.

“This year, so far, we haven’t been affected that badly, no more than normal anyway,” said Suquamish Tribe Fisheries Director Rob Purser. “Last year, last year was something I haven’t seen before. We were shut down in August (2006), and it didn’t cool down until March or April. I couldn’t harvest at all during those months.”

The “cool down” means levels of the biotoxin would have dipped below 80 micrograms for two consecutive weeks, said Kitsap County Health District senior environmental health specialist Jim Zimny. About this time last year, the Kingston marina and other North End waters were seeing levels of 400 micrograms of the toxin, whereas this year levels have been between normal and 81 to 91 micrograms.

“The marine toxins have been low this year, and scientists have been monitoring the shellfish statistics levels,” he said. “Measuring the last 25 to 30 years, there’s no pattern. It’s just the way the organisms grow in this area.”

The high amounts of toxin last year, while extremely unusual, cannot be attributed to anything more than higher than normal nutrients and better sunlight conditions allowing the biotoxin to flourish. Hard rainfall will wash nutrients into local waters, and then extended periods of sunshine allow the PSP toxin to bloom in high numbers. Zimny said there is no way to predict what years will have more closures than others, and most of the prediction equipment utilized is from the 1930s. The biotoxin, unlike bacteria, cannot be cooked or frozen out of the shellfish and can cause illness and death, so it is monitored closely by tribal, county and state scientists. The Suquamish Tribe, because of the odd biotoxin outbreak last year, is testing each batch of shellfish caught, namely geoducks, and is working hard to regain the economic losses from the closures without flooding the market.

“The only thing is we have to have PSP ratings for each geoduck harvest,” said Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman. “PSP has affected us severely the last year or two, but I’m not sure about this closure.”

Purser said so far, the tribe is viewing this year as a regular harvesting season, and biotoxin levels have been more normal than summer 2006 and last winter.

“Several concerns we have are market concerns,” he said. “We don’t want to flood the market with geoducks, it gets pretty complicated. The harvest is from year to year, the only exception we don’t harvest is when there’s a PSP closure we have to work around. Usually those are in the summer months.”

There is a shellfish closure currently in place for the eastern coastline of Kitsap County.

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