Guest Blog by Woody Moses, NAME Washington Co-Director

The devilish little cell, Alexandrium cantenella, source of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning

For millennia, people have gathered food from the shores of the Salish Sea. Unfortunately, these meals can sometimes lead to serious health issues, or even death. Consequently, whenever Giovannina and I collect filter-feeding bivalves from Washington coastal waters (clams, oysters, mussels, etc.), we always check “The Map.” Run by the Washington State Department of Health, the Shellfish Safety Map lists the most recent health advisories for beaches around Washington State including water quality and biotoxins alerts. The map is interactive and very easy to use, and I strongly recommend it for anyone who is considering collecting a molluskan dinner from our local waters. During our recent kayak trip through the San Juans, Gio and I harvested some large California mussels (Mytilus californianus), and we were most concerned about a toxin known as Paralytic Shellfish Poison (or PSP) which as the name suggests, can seriously fuck you up if you’re not careful. As a general rule of thumb, I try to avoid contracting any condition with “paralytic” in its name. Add “poison” to the description, and I’m definitely going to let it pass.

PSP is a naturally occurring biotoxin produced by a microscopic, single-celled algae known as Alexandrium catanella. Measuring less than fifty microns wide, under the right conditions, these little buggers can do massive amounts of damage. Alexandrium produces a neurotoxin that, as you might have guessed, causes muscle paralysis. A type of phytoplankton known as a dinoflagellate, Alexandrium catanella are floating around in the ocean all the time, but under certain conditions, they “bloom.” This means that their numbers increase exponentially and in a few days a handful of cells can grow to fill an entire bay and inlet. As they grow, so does the amount of neurotoxin they produce. Bivalves, like the mussels we harvested, get their meals by filtering algae (and other bits) out of the water. When there’s a bloom, they end up eating a lot of algae and accumulate the neurotoxin, which doesn’t seem to bother the mussels, but is very dangerous to us. For this reason, we call these as harmful algal blooms, or HABs. And so if you happen to be unlucky enough to eat a mussel (or clam or oyster or scallop) after one of these blooms, you can end up with a truly toxic meal, one that could send you to the hospital or even the cemetery.

A bloom of Noctiluca sp. (a dinoflagellate) seen here in Eastsound, Washington (July 2016). This isn’t harmful to humans, but shows how the a the mass of algae can color the water, which is why algal blooms are sometimes referred to as “red tides”. Photo: Jordan Cole

In September of 2012, a family of seven were vacationing somewhere along the Washington coast when they decided to harvest mussels from the beach by their hotel. If they had checked “The Map,” they would’ve seen a bright red line along the beach where they were staying and probably would’ve decided to stay in and watch The Simpsons. But apparently they didn’t know about “The Map,” or didn’t bother to check, and all seven of them ended up in the emergency room with symptoms ranging from tingling of the lips to vomiting to partial paralysis. The worst affected was a sixty-two year old woman who lost the ability to talk, then fell over and couldn’t stand up. She required intubation, was placed on a ventilator and sent to the ICU. Pretty scary for a nice little weekend at the coast. Thankfully, after a couple days, all seven of them were released from the hospital and seemed to make a full recovery. But not everyone is so lucky.

The first recorded death from PSP in Alaska was in 1799 when members of the Russian American Trading Company ate contaminated blue mussels in Southeast Alaska. The area of the incident is now known as Poison Cove, a great example of geographic names being used for public health education. Unfortunately, folks are still dying of PSP and just this past summer, one poor Alaskan succumbed to the dreaded illness. On July 4, 2020, an individual in Dutch Harbor, AK celebrated Independence Day by harvesting a number of blue mussels from a local beach. They returned home, cooked everything thoroughly and a few hours later were being airlifted to a hospital in Anchorage. Unfortunately, there was nothing the doctors could do, and within days, they died. You see, the PSP toxin is not like a bacterium or virus—you can’t kill it with heat and cooking the shellfish won’t destroy it. The only thing you can do is avoid it.

Cases of PSP seem to be on the rise, and the Alaska Division of Epidemiology estimates a roughly seven-fold increase in PSP events since 1973. The reason for this isn’t entirely clear, but we do know that certain conditions increase the risk of harmful algal blooms. At the top of the list are more nutrients and warmer waters, both of which have increased along with human population growth. More people living around the ocean means more nutrients in the oceans, and that’s more food for algae like Alexandrium. Population growth has also led to more carbon emissions and global warming, which heats the oceans as well as the atmosphere, increasing the likelihood of harmful algal blooms. Unfortunately, humans aren’t the only ones affected by PSP. Recently, a number of Kittlitz’s murrelets died from eating sand lance that were full of the toxin, and in 1978 about seventy common terns and other seabirds died from it.

Food Taster By Giorces – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5 it

You might be thinking you should never eat shellfish from the beach, and honestly, that’s not a terrible idea. When I was guiding, the official policy was to never gather shellfish as the risk of PSP was just too high. However, there was one guide who apparently thought this was merely a suggestion and chose to treat his clients to fresh oysters, using himself as a pregustator. He would cook an oyster, eat it and if it made his lips tingle he wouldn’t feed the rest to his clients. As far as I know, he never fell ill from doing this. He did get a lot of tips, however, though not enough to cover potential medical or legal bills.

Historically, indigenous folk didn’t harvest shellfish during the summer, when long days increase the risk of harmful algal blooms. Instead, they collected shellfish during the darker winter months supplementing salmon and other fish harvested in the warmer months. Today we have agencies like the Washington State Department of Health that conduct regular monitoring of the bivalves we like to eat, and can let us know if the appetizers we’re gathering will send us to the ER.

So what about the mussels we collected?

I was able to use my iPhone to check “The Map,” and sadly, there was a thick red line running all along the southern coast of Lopez Island where we harvested them. Nope. We were not going to eat anything growing there. So even after all that work pulling those damn mussels off the rocks, we tossed them back into the sea, hoping that a local crab or sea star might find them for a nice evening meal.


About the Author

Since 2003, Woody Moses has been living in Seattle where he works as a biology and environmental science instructor at Highline College. He spends his free time exploring the wonders of the Salish Sea and the majesty of the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. Read about the rest of Woody’s Wanderings in the PNW on his website, Three Gems.

I have been a marine educator for over 35 years.  Besides working with various school and scout groups, I have the opportunity to work with over 1300 amazing volunteers along the Oregon coast who have adopted a mile of beach and are asked to report officially, quarterly, on the state of their beach. My job is to make sure our volunteers are introduced to the most recent research, coastal concerns and interesting findings on the beaches they’ll be visiting.

I am currently NAME Oregon Treasurer, Past Oregon Director, and a Past NAME President (2011-2012). I’ve been a member since 1993 or 1994, since I helped with the 1992 conference as an employee for Sea Grant at Hatfield Marine Science Center. I have found my contacts in NAME to be very beneficial to my success as a marine educator.  We always have a wonderful time exploring our water world!

This spring I’m looking forward to going to Qatar to visit my daughter and family, go to the beach and check out the different marine organisms there, then to Sri Lanka to check out the beaches there, go on a Blue Whale watching tour and visit the sea turtle rescue center.  For the summer,  I’m looking forward to hanging with my buds from afar, participating in some of the freshwater experiences and, of course, the banquet/auction at our annual conference.

Oregon CoastWatch is celebrating its 25th year of collecting data along the 362 miles of coastline.  We will be hosting various events throughout the year to commemorate the commitment of our volunteers.  We will be kicking this off with our annual “Sharing the Coast Conference”, which is celebrating the 10th year of our partnership with the Oregon Chapter of NAME.  This year, Cannon Beach and the Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach, Oregon are hosting it.  We would love to have our awesome NAME members attend.  To register or for more information about CoastWatch or the conference, feel free to contact me at fawn@oregonshores.org  or 541.270.0027.

The National Marine Educators Association’s annual conference was just held in Charleston, South Carolina. This four-day event was replete with activities for both new and experienced marine educators. Featured speakers included scientists, environmentalists, artists, writers, storytellers and members of the Gullah/Geechee Nation. The sessions were chock-full of curriculum ideas and hands-on activities. To access presenter materials go to download.nmea2017.org
Next year’s NMEA conference will be hosted by the Southwest Marine Educators Association chapter from July 15-20 in sunny Long Beach, CA! It is being held on the Queen Mary, docked adjacent to the Aquarium of the Americas.
We were proud to have so many NAME members representing the Pacific Northwest at the conference this year! We hope to see some of you there next year!

All of us at NAME were honored to know and work with Joy Elizabeth Tally. Her passion for the environment and love for her community made a deep, permanent mark on NAME as an organization, and for each one of us fortunate enough to know her as a friend. If you would like to make a donation to NAME in honor of Joy, please follow the Donate link below. Your donation will help fund the professional development of aspiring marine and aquatic educators so that NAME can continue to create a community of water-literate stewards.




“On Watch”—from the President’s Desk


January 30, 2017

There’s something about water that draws all of us closer to the fundamental mystery and wonder of life. And when we find others – friends, loved ones, mentors or colleagues – with whom we can share this mystical journey, we know we have been given a profound gift. All of us at NAME were blessed by the gift that was Joy Elizabeth Tally. As a friend, a colleague, a mentor and an inspiration, Joy offered her spirit and energy to us in the NAME community. Her passion for the environment and love for her community made a deep, permanent mark on NAME as an organization, and for each one of us fortunate enough to know her as a friend.

Before moving to the wind-swept beaches and wave-drenched tide pools of the Pacific Northwest, Joy grew up exploring the protected salt marshes of southern New England. This is where she first encountered something that ultimately drew her into the NAME community. Once she arrived to the Pacific Northwest she brought with her an energy and passion for environmental education that inspired everyone she worked with. I first met Joy while attending the 2010 NAME conference in Florence, OR and knew immediately that we were all in good hands. Persistent, energetic, aware and deeply committed, her energy was infectious. I had the honor to work with her on a number of projects and when I took over as NAME President last summer, I felt a strong sense of responsibility knowing I had to live up to the standards that she had set as President only two terms before.

It was with deeply opposing feelings of loss and comfort that the NAME community gathered during the weekend of January 28-29th in Des Moines, WA for our annual mid-year Board Meeting. For me, it felt very odd to be discussing issues like D&O insurance while mourning the loss of our close friend. But at the same time we all needed each other in that moment and were thankful to be together to share our memories and grief, and to do the diligent work of making NAME a better organization that could live up to the ideals we shared with Joy. Doing the hard but necessary work of running an organization like NAME is what Joy did so well, and while she is deeply missed by all of us, we carry her memory and spirit as we move forward. It is in her memory that the NAME Board voted unanimously to rename the President’s Award, the Joy Tally President’s Award, so that all future NAME members will know the indelible mark she left on us.

After the Board Meeting some of us were lucky enough to spend the night at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium for a first-ever NAME Overnight at PDZA. Cathleen McConnell from PDZA helped organize the event and we were able to share our passion with new and old NAME members, as well as friends and family who also cherish the natural world. Joy was to be there with her niece and nephew, and while everyone had a deliriously good – though somewhat sleep-deprived – time, we all felt like someone was missing. I don’t think that feeling will go away any time soon. But when I walk down by Puget Sound and stare down into those breaking waves I know I’ll catch glimpses of it in the last retreating shimmer of the water’s edge.

 Woody

Woody Moses
NAME 2016-2017 President

I recently received the sad news that one of my favorite professors had been diagnosed with stage four cancer, and the prognosis wasn’t good. I sat down and wrote him a letter, try to explain the difference he made in my life and thanking him for helping me to become the person and the teacher that I am. After I wrote it, I realized that many of my fellow educators likely have similar stories about someone who helped them on their way. I don’t usually share this sort of thing on social media, but thought it might resonate with some of you, so here it is.

“And now I’m sharing what I’ve learned with another generation. I’m trying to pass on the inspiration that you gave me to my students. These are the ones who walk through the door the first day of class full of apprehension, worried about what they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s not easy to inspire students, to make them want to learn. I’m sure you know that. Each student enters with his or her own history of bad high school science classes, skeptical that this will be any different. But there’s something about the ocean that makes everyone smile. And there’s something about knowing what you love, so that when you talk about it they can see it. Maybe they don’t see why you love science, not at first anyway. But they do see that love. They see that it did something to you, that it changed you for the better and that it’s going to be ok. It’s ok to let what you love change you. It’s okay to follow those passions and to dream about the day when you can experience a world that you’ve only read about, because this person, this teacher, he’s done it. He’s been there and he’s bringing that love back.

You brought it to me. Thank you for that. And I know you brought it to countless others as well.

With deepest regards and wishing you and your family peace, your student,

Woody Moses”

“On Watch”—from the President’s Desk


August 30, 2016

Hello NAME!

I’m still jazzed from yet another a wonderful NAME conference in a stunning location. The BC folks outdid themselves, putting on a fine celebration of all things aquatic and marine. They found a gem of a host with Pearson College, in humble Metchosin, BC, and put together a powerful lineup of fascinating concurrent sessions, and exciting field trips. Inspirational keynote presentations by Lenny Ross, Dr. Eileen van der Flier Keller and Jane Watson blended science with a shared love of the aquatic environment. The week at Pearson rekindled by passion for marine education and motivated me to get my students back into nature. I want to give special thanks to Jennifer Magnusson, Sile Kafrissen, Cathy Carolsfeld, Carolina Carolsfeld, and Mary Holmes. This year’s conference couldn’t have happened without all of your hard work and dedication. And I also want to thank everyone else who chipped in to make #unitedbywater2016 a success. Putting on a NAME conference takes a lot of shared effort and dedication. You guys rock!

Many of this year’s sessions and presentations focused on Indigenous Science and broadening our teachings so that all members of our community are fully contributing to a shared knowledge base. We are at our best when we learn from each other’s histories and can solve current and future problems together. Honest, heartfelt discussions about sometimes painful subjects can only occur in a deeply caring and supportive environment, which NAME cultivates so well.

Of course we also had lots of fun. Participants in this year’s field trips kayaked, hunted fossils, visited local environmental education facilities, and explored the wildlife of Race Rocks by boat. We stretched our vocal chords in evening sing-alongs and enjoyed quiet and contemplative walks through the wooded hillsides. This year’s auction raised over $4800 USD (that’s over $6000 Canadian dollars) to support scholarships and mini-grants so folks can continue to engage in our generous community (https://www.pacname.org/mg.shtml) And as always, there was lots of dancing.

Next summer we’ll be in Homer, Alaska, enjoying the natural classrooms of the Kenai Peninsula and Kachemak Bay. Be sure to check for updates on the NAME webpage (www.pacname.org) and on Facebook. And in the meantime, look for NAME flashmail in your email inbox to see job opportunities and local chapter event announcements for this year (https://www.pacname.org/chap.shtml)
If you’ve got the travel bug, feel free to visit friends and participate in events in other states as well.

As summer becomes fall, I’m looking forward to exploring the waters – marine or fresh – of the Northwest I’ll be thinking about everyone at NAME, and the excitement of seeing everyone in Homer next summer.

Be well, have fun and get outside,

 Woody

Woody Moses
NAME 2016-2017 President