Alaskans appreciate algal alliances from afar

Sandy beach at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Sandy Beach panorama at low tide, covered in tempting shellfish crowding around the Treadwell Mine saltwater pumphouse. November 2012.

Juneau is a city of juxtaposition.  It’s enough to make me feel a little confined, now and then, but I see more art in this city every day. I lived in a building that’s made from parts of the old Douglas Bridge. The home is held up by the limbs of a gateway that straddled a channel, one foot on the mainland and the other on an island.

In Fairbanks, you can see what’s coming. The thunderstorm will start just as the workday ends. The temperature will drop to -40. Your car won’t start at least once this winter. The wildfire’s smoke plume billows a safe 60 miles away. You will bleed if you touch the floor in The Marlin.

Juneau uses every available square inch to surprise visitors. Not only do mountains leap from the water, but they leap 4,000 feet over a dizzying short distance. The tide seeps in until wetlands become open water. Wee beasties in the ocean meet with shellfish and contaminate them with an inconspicuous, but not inconsequential, toxin.

That last point isn’t convenient for visitors to Juneau. After all, juxtaposition can be deadly, too.

Have you heard about paralytic shellfish poisoning? I hadn’t. Thankfully, I didn’t experience it, either — I just told a bookstore employee that I’d gazed at the mussels on Sandy Beach. I was looking at a book about harvesting your own seafood. He stopped me short: Juneau’s beaches aren’t the place to forage. If I listened to that free-food instinct, I could get sick, he said. Very sick.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning stems from something called saxitoxin. Saxitoxin is found in some red algae — plant-like organisms that don’t quite resemble algae at all. Red algae can also tint the sea to look like fluorescent blood.

What happens if shellsfish slurp up saxitoxin? They end up fine, but if you eat them, first your lips tingle. Your arms go numb, you can’t move your legs. You feel like you’re floating. In a couple hours, your chest freezes up and you can’t breathe. If the poisoning gets to this point, you die — that could take a couple of hours, or rarely, days.

There’s no treatment, other than having hospital staff help you purge the toxin from your system.

In “Hunting the Mighty Cockle,” Alaska magazine suggested that cockles are safe to harvest in Juneau in late fall and winter, when temperatures are too cold for algae to grow. This isn’t true, although commercial shellfish are safe.

Usually, in Juneau, you can appreciate the beauty of juxtaposition. It’s easy to notice when the temperatures hopscotch around freezing, when your plane flies next to a mountain before landing or when a bear crosses a road. There’s no way for the average person to know when shellfish has bumped up against an alga that makes saxitoxin.

I’ve learned to appreciate the crunch of shells under my boots, a guilty pleasure safe from any chastising bookstore employees.

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