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Frequently Asked Questions About Pacific Halibut


I had planned to wrap up my series of blog posts on halibut last week, but then I realized I’d left unanswered questions, including some of the questions our guests most frequently ask us about halibut. Last week, I attempted to explain the complicated system and the agencies involved in regulating both the commercial and sports fisheries for halibut, so I’ll stay away from regulations here. If you would like to know more about halibut fishing regulations, let me know.

How old is my halibut?

It is very difficult to age a halibut by looking at it. Females grow much faster and larger than males, so a 40 inch (102 cm), 30 lb.(13.6 kg) male might be 20 years old, while a female that size could be as young as six-years-old. Growth rates also vary widely between individuals of the same sex. Scientists age halibut by counting the growth rings laid down on the otolith, a bony structure in halibut’s inner ear. The rings on an otolith are counted in the same manner a tree’s rings are counted to determine the age of a tree. Research has determined most halibut landed by a sports fishermen average between five and 15 years.

Is my halibut a male or female?

A halibut’s gonads are found at the bottom of the gut cavity. If the halibut is a female, the ovaries are triangular, hollow sacs that have a light pink tint. The testes in males appear solid and rubbery and are gray.

How much meat will I get from a 50-lb fish?

You should recover 50 to 60% of the total weight of the fish as edible meat. A 50-lb. (22.7 kg) fish will produce 25 to 30 lbs. (11.4 kg – 13.6 kg) of beautiful, boneless fillets.

What is a chalky halibut?

Sometimes the meat of a halibut, especially a smaller halibut, will appear opaque white instead of translucent when it is filleted. While this chalky meat may taste slightly drier than opaque meat, there is nothing wrong with the meat. Chalkiness is caused by a build-up of lactic acid in the flesh when the halibut over-exerts itself while it is fighting as the fisherman hauls it to the surface. Warmer water temperatures also seem to be a factor in causing increased lactic acid in the fish. In Alaska, 5% of all halibut caught are chalky.

How well do halibut survive catch and release?

Unlike rockfish or cod, halibut do not have an air bladder, or swim bladder, which expands from changes in water pressure, so halibut do not suffer as much when brought to the surface. Research has found that sport-caught halibut handled gently have a 95% survival rate.

My halibut turned to mush when I cooked it. What did I do wrong?

Oops! It may have looked like a small halibut, but you probably caught an arrowtooth flounder. Arrowtooth flounder are dusky colored on the “white” side, have larger scales than a halibut, and needle-like teeth in their long mouth. These flounder have an enzyme that when activated by heat, makes their flesh dissolve.

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That’s all I have on Pacific halibut, but I would love to hear questions and comments from you. Next, I will tackle Pacific salmon, but first, next week, I need to tell you about my spring and summer. This has not been the best year for me, but I hope by writing about it, I can turn things around so my end-of-the-year post will be about how great the last few months of 2017 were!

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Sport Fishing for Halibut and Who Manages Halibut Fishing in Alaska

 

Sport Fishing for Halibut:

Before 1973, sport halibut fishing was only legal when the commercial halibut season was open, but because there were few sport halibut anglers, this regulation was rarely enforced. As the sport fishery grew, the International Pacific Halibut Commission officially recognized it and established regulations for sport fishing in 1973. In 1975, anglers in Alaska harvested an estimated 10,000 lbs. of halibut. Since then, the sport fish take has continually increased, reaching over 8 million pounds today. Most sport fishing for halibut takes place in Southeast and South Central Alaska.

Sport-caught halibut average between 15 to 20 lbs. (6.8 – 9.1 kg) in weight, but anglers often catch much larger fish. The current Alaska state record for a sport-caught halibut is 459 lbs. (208 kg). Most anglers fish for halibut with bait such as herring, squid, octopus, or cod. Fishing for halibut is usually done off shore, and since most sport anglers visiting Alaska do not have access to a seaworthy boat, they must use a charter-sport-fishing service. The charter industry has grown rapidly in Alaska in recent years, and fishery managers now estimate the charter fishery accounts for 60 to 70% of the Alaska sport harvest. Along with this growth in the charter industry, regulations for charter boat owners have increased. In 2011, a limited entry system was implemented for the charter boat fleet. Regulations to further limit the number of pounds taken by the charter boat industry have been added nearly every year since 2011. By 2017, charter boats are not allowed to let their fishermen retain halibut two days of the week, and on the other days, a fishermen on a charter boat can retain only one halibut over 28 inches (71.2 cm) and may keep one halibut 28 inches (71.2 cm). or smaller.

Who Regulates Halibut Harvests in Alaska:

In 1923, when biologists realized halibut stocks were declining from over-fishing, the U.S. and Canada signed a treaty, creating the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). In 1924, the Commission implemented a three-month, winter closure for commercial halibut fishing. The IPHC is responsible for assessing the status of halibut stocks and for setting catch limits and harvest strategies to provide an optimum yield. In the United States, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) divides the halibut resource between users and user groups in Alaska. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) develops and enforces regulations regarding the management of halibut fisheries in U.S. waters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner has a seat on the NPFMC, and the ADF&G licenses anglers and sport fishing businesses and guides and monitors and reports on sport and subsistence harvests. The ADF&G also helps federal agencies with the preparation of regulatory analyses. Whew! Are you confused yet?

The IPHC conducts most of the research on halibut. The IPHC uses annual longline surveys to monitor halibut abundance and the sex and size structure of the population. The IPHC also studies halibut migrations and movements as well as spawning and other behavior. The IPHC then incorporates the findings from its studies into stock assessment models to estimate abundance and evaluate harvest strategies.

The IPHC and the NMFS monitor commercial halibut harvests, while the State of Alaska monitors recreational harvests. On our charter boat, we must fill out a daily log book listing the number of halibut each angler catches and record how many each kept and how many each released.

Both commercial fishermen and charter boat captains pressure the IPHC and the other entities who help set quotas and other regulations for halibut fishing. Neither commercial fishermen nor charter boat captains feel the other group faces strict enough regulations, and both groups feel regulations are too strict for them. We all hope halibut abundance rebounds to previous levels.
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I decided next week to write one more blog post about halibut to answer some of the questions we are frequently asked by halibut fishermen. We just had our first group of serious fishermen this summer at our lodge, and I spent the week answering halibut questions, so they are fresh in my mind.

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Commercial Halibut Fishing

Commercial halibut fishing is big business in Alaska. Halibut are valuable fish to humans because they are mild, good tasting, and have a white flesh. They are popular with sports fishermen because not only do they taste good but they are good fighters and grow very large. A halibut’s meat can be kept without refrigeration for a long period which made them an excellent target for commercial fishermen in the late 1800s. Today, halibut is considered a delicacy and often sells for $20 or more a pound in stores in the lower 48, making it a valuable source of income for commercial fishermen who target the species. Commercial and sports fishing for halibut are thriving industries in Alaska, and it is not an easy job to monitor halibut populations and allocate quotas to commercial fishermen, sport-fishing guides, private sports fishermen, and subsistence fishermen.

This week, I will describe how commercial fishing for halibut is done, how many pounds of halibut are caught per year, and how halibut fishing and fishing regulations have changed over the years. Next week, I will discuss techniques used to sport catch halibut and the regulations in the charter sportfishing business. I will also attempt to explain the different entities who set and implement halibut regulations in the state. Creating halibut regulations that are fair to all user groups is a complicated, frequently disputed, process. Tensions are often high between commercial and sports fisherman targeting the same species, and nowhere is this conflict more evident than between commercial and sports halibut fishermen.

Commercial fishing for halibut began in 1888 off the southern end of Vancouver Island, along the Canadian coast, and in Southeast Alaska. In the early years of the industry, fishermen caught halibut from small dories and then delivered their catch to large sailing vessels or steamships. As commercial halibut fishing became more popular, smaller schooners ranging from 60-100 ft. (18.3-30.5 m) were used. These schooners were specifically designed for halibut fishing and carried crews of five to eight men. Today, commercial halibut boats come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are usually boats that can be used in other fisheries, such as salmon seining or crabbing.

Commercial halibut fishing is done by longline. Halibut gear consists of units of leaded ground line in lengths of 100 fathoms ( 600 ft. or 183 m). These units of ground line are called “skates.” Hooks are attached to separate lines called “gangens,” and gangens are snapped or tied onto a skate. Each skate has about 100 hooks attached to it, and each hook is baited with fish or octopus. A “set” consists of one or more baited skates tied together and laid on the ocean bottom with anchors at each end. A floating line with a buoy is attached to each end of the set. Once fishermen deploy a set, they may let it soak for anywhere for two to 20 hours before pulling it.

Annual commercial halibut catches in Alaska hit 69 million pounds in 1915 but fell to 44 million pounds in 1931. Stricter fishing regulations helped the industry rebound, and in 1962, commercial fishermen harvested over 70 million pounds of halibut. Halibut catches then began to fall precipitously to a low of only 21 million pounds in the late 1970s. The harvest then again began to steadily rise to 70 million pounds per year by the late 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. The commercial catch has been decreasing ever since then.

Commercial halibut fishing was not effectively regulated until 1995. Before 1995, the commercial season often consisted of one or two 24-hour or 48-hour openings per year, and there was no limited entry. Anyone could fish from any vessel for halibut during an opening. Many fishermen loved this “race for the fish,” but not only was it impossible for The Alaska Department of Fish and Game to regulate how many pounds of halibut were caught during an opening, but the fishery became dangerous. Bad weather and treacherous seas during a halibut opening claimed many lives of fishermen using small boats in extreme ocean conditions. Since the fishery sometimes went nonstop for 48 hours, fishing crews became exhausted, causing some fishermen to make careless, life-threatening mistakes they would not normally make.

Since 1995, the commercial halibut industry in Alaska has been managed under an Individual Fishery Quota (IFQ) system. Based on catches from previous years, commercial fishermen were allotted IFQs. The number of halibut allowed per IFQ fluctuates depending on the health of the halibut population. IFQs can be bought and sold and are now quite valuable. The IFQ system was originally unpopular with many commercial fishermen, but it has resulted in longer seasons and safer boats fishing in better conditions. Also, since fishermen can catch their IFQ limits any time of the year when the season is open, fresh halibut is now available eight months out of the year.

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I’ll be back with sports fishing for halibut next week. Since I am a sport-fishing guide, I can’t wait to tell you about my industry!

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Pacific Halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis)

Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Photo

Halibut are related to flounders and other flatfish. Pacific halibut are the largest members of the Family Pleuronectidae.  They are found near the continental shelf in the northern Pacific Ocean and range from California north to the Chukchi Sea and from the Gulf of Anadyr, Russia south to Hokkaido, Japan. Halibut live on or near the bottom of the ocean and prefer water temperatures ranging from 37.4 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit (3⁰ to 8⁰C).

Halibut and their relatives are flattened laterally and swim sideways with both eyes on one side of the body. They have diamond-shaped bodies and are more elongated than most flat fishes. The width of the fish is approximately one-third its length. A halibut’s scales are small and are embedded in the skin, making the fish feel smooth to the touch. The top side of a halibut’s body is gray to olive- brown or nearly black and is mottled with numerous spots, allowing the fish to blend in with a sandy or muddy bottom and providing it camouflage from predators and prey. The bottom side of a halibut is white. The eyes of a halibut are on the dark side of the fish. Nearly all halibut are right-eyed which means the eyes are on the upper, dark side or the right side of the fish. Approximately one in 20,000 halibut is left-eyed with the eyes and dark pigment on the left side of the body. The dorsal fin extends from near the eyes to the base of the tail, and the anal fin begins just behind the anus and ends at nearly the same point opposite the dorsal fin. The mouth extends to the middle of the lower eye, and the tail is broad and symmetrical and lacks a fork. The lateral line arches high over the pectoral fin and is a characteristic that easily distinguishes a halibut from an arrowtooth flounder, a species that looks much like a halibut but has a nearly straight lateral line. Pacific halibut can reach 8 ft. (2.4 m) in length and weigh more than 500 lbs. (230 kg).

Most male halibut are sexually mature at age eight, while females begin to mature when they are 12 years old. They reproduce at depths of 300 to 1500 ft. (91 -457 m), and spawning takes place in the winter from November through March. Males randomly release sperm while females release eggs, and fertilization happens by chance. A female halibut may release a few thousand to four million eggs, depending on the size of the fish. Fertilized eggs hatch in approximately 15 days, and the larvae drift with the deep ocean currents. In the Gulf of Alaska, the larvae drift in a counter clockwise direction along the coast. As the larvae mature, they rise in the water column until they ride the surface currents to shallower coastal waters. When they hatch, larvae swim in an upright position with eyes on both sides of their head. When they are approximately an inch long, the left eye migrates over the snout to the right side of the head, and the color on the left side fades to white. When they are six months old, halibut settle onto the sea floor, where the dark coloration on the side with their eyes helps camouflage them.

Young Pacific halibut are very migratory and migrate in a clockwise direction throughout the Gulf of Alaska. As they age, halibut tend to become less migratory, but mature fish do migrate to deeper water in the winter to spawn and to shallower water in the summer to feed.

Halibut feed on plankton during their first year, and juveniles between the ages of one and three years old eat euphausiids (krill) and small fish. As they grow, halibut become more dependent on fish, and larger halibut eat herring, sand lance, capelin cod, pollock, sablefish, rockfish, flounders, and smaller halibut. They also eat octopus, clams, and crabs. Halibut usually sit on the bottom, but they will swim up in the water column to feed on salmon. A halibut will eat nearly any fish or organism it can catch.

Female halibut grow faster and reach a much larger size than male halibut. Males rarely grow larger than three feet in length (1 m) and weigh a maximum of 60 lbs. (27 kg), while females may reach over 6 ft. (2 m) in length and weigh over 500 lbs. (230 kg). Halibut growth rates vary depending on location, food availability and other conditions. As they grow longer, their weight increases, but the relationship between length and weight is not linear. The relationship between total length (L, in inches) and weight (W, in pounds) for all species of fish can be expressed by the equation: W=cLb. The constant “b” is close to 3.0 for all species of fish, but the constant “c” varies among species. For halibut, c = 0.00018872 and b = 3.24. By applying this equation, a 58-inch-long (150 cm) halibut weighs approximately 100 lbs. (45 kg).

According to scientific research, the size of Pacific halibut at a particular age has changed over time. The average length and weight of halibut in every age class increased from the 1920s to the 1970s but has decreased since then. For example, 12-year-old halibut are now three-quarters the length and one-half the weight they were in the 1980s. The reasons for these changes in size over time are unknown, but possible causes include competition with other species or with other halibut, climate effects on growth or survival, or effects of fishing and size limits.

The oldest recorded male and female halibut were 55 years old.  Except for man, adult halibut have few natural predators. They are sometimes eaten by marine mammals and sharks, but they are rarely eaten by other fish.

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Next week, I will describe commercial and sport fishing for halibut in Alaska, and I will attempt to explain how halibut is managed.

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Fish

I admit I love fish. I grew up in Kansas, and every summer, my family took a vacation somewhere. I always wanted to go to the ocean. I learned to snorkel and SCUBA dive, so I could escape the noisy world and enjoy the peace beneath the surface of the ocean where I would drift and watch the beautiful reef fish. I studied marine biology as an undergraduate and received a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology, with the emphasis on “fish.” I am telling you this to explain how excited I am about my next series of posts because they are all about fish!

Every time I put on my face mask and fins and jump in the water, I have an  identification card or book on hand, so when I get back to shore, I can identify any fish I didn’t recognize. These charts are great, and I can usually find laminated ones I can get wet. The problem with identification charts and books, though, is they never provide enough information. I want to know the fish’s life cycle, its food habits, and where it fits in the complex coral reef ecosystem. I want to know more about it than just its name.

When I decided to write about North Pacific fish in Alaskan waters, I knew I wanted to start with the Pacific halibut. The halibut is an economically valuable species both to commercial and sport fishermen in Alaska, so I thought there had to be a book about Pacific halibut biology, habits, migration, and distribution, but I could find no such book. There are books on halibut fishing, and I have a book about halibut management, but I want to know about the fish, not about how it’s caught or its commercial significance. I felt as if I was looking at an identification card. I could identify and name the fish, but I wanted more.

With the help of Google, I’ve gathered bits and pieces about halibut biology from the Internet and from my fish books, and next week, I will tell you what I have learned. After halibut, I will tackle salmon and a few other important commercial and sport species. My husband informed me that not everyone is as enamored with fish as I am, so I promise not to overdose you on the subject. We’ve just started our summer bear-viewing and sport fishing season, so I will occasionally interrupt my fish posts to write about our adventures.

I will close this post with a photo of the sweet, little fawn I saw in our yard a few days ago. It is a definite “ahh” moment.

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Water Hemlock and Poison Hemlock

Water Hemlock

Botanists consider water hemlock the most poisonous plant in North America. Just a bite of the root will kill a human.

Both water and poison hemlock grow in Alaska, and both are deadly poisonous. Both species inhabit wet areas such as marshes, streams, and moist meadows. Water hemlock grows to a height of two to six feet, and poison hemlock reaches three to eight feet in height. Water hemlock has alternate, compound, oval leaflets with saw-toothed margins. The leaves of poison hemlock are lance-shaped with saw-toothed edges. Both species have small, lacy, white flowers arranged in umbrella-like clusters. The stems of the plants are hollow. The roots are tuberous and chambered and contain a yellow, oily, foul-smelling liquid.

Water Hemlock

The yellow, oily substance found in the roots is circutoxin, and it is present in all parts of the plant. When ingested, circutoxin depresses the respiratory system. Symptoms begin to appear within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and include salivation followed by diarrhea, severe stomach distress, and convulsions. Without treatment, death occurs within eight hours of ingestion, and even if a person survives hemlock poisoning, she may suffer permanent damage to her central nervous system.

Hemlock poisonings in children are often caused when kids use the hollow stem of the plant to make whistles or use the stems as pea shooters. Adults are sometimes poisoned when they mistake the roots of hemlock as wild parsnip or add the leaves of the deadly plant to a pot herb mixture. Poisoning has also occurred when campers have mistaken the leaves of water hemlock as some sort of wild marijuana and have smoked them. Livestock can be poisoned by hemlock when grazing the plants or drinking water near where the plants grow. A poisoned animal may die in as little as fifteen minutes.

Poison Hemlock

In Maine, on October 5th, 1992, a 23-year old man and his 39-year old brother were foraging for wild ginseng, when the younger man collected several plants growing in a swampy area and took three bites from the root of one of the plants. His older brother took one bite of the same root. Within 30 minutes, the younger man began to vomit and suffer convulsions. It took 30 minutes for the brothers to walk out of the woods and call for help. Emergency personnel arrived within 15 minutes, and by that time, the younger brother was unresponsive and cyanotic with profuse salivation and intermittent seizures. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite medical intervention, he died three hours after ingesting the root. The older brother appeared normal when he reached the emergency room, but he began to have seizures and suffer delirium two hours after eating the root. He was eventually stabilized and survived the poisoning.

The suicide of Socrates in 399 BC is the most famous case of hemlock poisoning. Socrates was accused and found guilty of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and for “corrupting the youth.” He was sentenced to death and ordered to drink a cup of poison hemlock. Socrates was his own executioner. According to the story, Socrates cheerfully drank the poison, and surrounded by his students; he paced the room while he lectured to them. When he could no longer stand, he sat and soon died.

Nature is beautiful but sometimes deadly. Most of us don’t walk around the woods picking and nibbling on plant roots, but it is surprising to learn some plants are not even safe to touch. Here on Kodiak, I try not to touch cow parsnip or nettles because the first will cause a burn on my skin and the second will cause instant pain followed by hours of tingling, but I remind myself I could die from touching monkshood or hemlock. The toxicity of monkshood and hemlock make them wonderful weapons for a mystery writer.

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Monkshood

 

Witches smear monkshood root on their bodies and broomsticks, swallow a few drops of delirium-producing belladonna, and go flying.

Monkshood includes several species of plants belonging to the family Ranunculaceae. It ranges throughout Alaska and can be found in meadows, thickets, on rocky slopes, and along stream banks. It is common on Kodiak Island.

Monkshood plants grow two-to-six-feet tall, depending on the species and the habitat. The dark green leaves are palmate and lobed, and the vivid blue-purple flowers have five sepals, with one resembling a cylindrical helmet, or a “monk’s hood.”

All parts of the monkshood plant contain aconite, a deadly poison, and just three grains of the root will kill a hefty adult. Signs of aconite poisoning appear within less than an hour. Death occurs immediately if large doses of aconite are ingested, while smaller doses are usually fatal within two-to-six hours. Initial signs of aconite poisoning include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea; followed by tingling, burning, and numbness in the mouth and face and burning in the abdomen. If the poisoning is severe, the numbness and tingling will spread to the arms and legs, followed by motor weakness in the limbs. Other symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, sweating dizziness, difficulty breathing, a headache, and confusion. Death is usually caused by ventricular arrhythmia or paralysis of the heart or respiratory center.

No definitive treatment for aconite poisoning exists, but if the poisoned individual can be rushed to a medical center, drugs such as atropine can be used to treat bradycardia, and activated charcoal can be given within one hour of ingestion to decontaminate the intestines. In the field, an individual who has ingested monkshood should immediately be given Syrup of Ipecac to induce vomiting and then evacuated to more advanced medical care. The ancient cure for aconite poisoning was, “brandy blended with flies that had suppered on monkshood.” Unfortunately, this cure is not practical for most of us.

As I mentioned, all parts of the monkshood plant are poisonous. The roots are the most toxic, and ingestion of the roots or any part of the plant is extremely dangerous, but poisoning can also occur just by picking the leaves without wearing gloves. Aconitine toxin is easily absorbed through the skin, and when this happens, there are no gastrointestinal symptoms. Tingling starts at the point where the toxin was absorbed and spreads to the arm and shoulder before affecting the heart.

Probably the most common cause of monkshood poisoning is accidental ingestion of some part of the plant. It looks much like and grows next to edible wild geraniums, and the root of the monkshood plant has been mistaken for a parsnip. In 2000, a medical examiner listed aconite poisoning as the cause of a suicide. On July 30th, 2004, Canadian actor Andre Noble died after a camping trip when he was believed to have accidentally eaten monkshood, and in 2008, an individual died four hours after eating a few monkshood flowers.

Various cultures have used monkshood as a medicine. It has been given as a heart and nerve sedative, a pain reliever, and a fever reducer, but the problem with using monkshood as a medication is that safe doses of aconite are rarely effective, and effective doses are lethal.

Many cultures used monkshood as arrow poisons. The Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) people, the first inhabitants of Kodiak Island, concocted a poison made from the roots of monkshood to tip the darts and spears they used to hunt humpback and fin whales.

I explored the toxic effects of Monkshood in my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, but I am hardly the first author to use this plant as a murder weapon. Monkshood is mentioned in Greek mythology, and Shakespeare refers to it in Henry IV Part II. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Rudolph Bloom commits suicide with an overdose of aconite, and monkshood has been used as a murder weapon in TV shows such as Rizzoli and Isles, NCIS, Dexter, and American Horror story. In episode seven of the second season of the Game of Thrones, an assassin applies monkshood (or wolf’s bane) to his dart.

Next week, I will explore the poisonous attributes of water hemlock, a plant common along streams on Kodiak Island.

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Baneberry

A baneberry is a perfect, beautiful, little berry but it is also deadly poisonous. “Bane” is defined as a thing that harms, interferes with, or destroys the welfare of something, and bane can also mean poison. It takes only six baneberries to kill an adult human.

Baneberries grow in moist, shady areas, and on dry slopes. On Kodiak, they are mostly found in the woods, often growing near salmonberry bushes. Baneberry plants grow 2 to 3 ½ ft. high and have large, lobed, coarsely toothed leaves. In the early summer, small, white flowers bloom on the plant, and then later in the summer, the plants produce round, red or white berries. Each berry is attached to a separate, short, thick stalk. The berries are either round or oblong and are very glossy. The plants are beautiful and are sometimes used for landscaping.

All parts of the baneberry plant are poisonous. According to old folklore, it is safe to eat any berry birds can eat, but baneberries prove this saying false. Birds can safely consume baneberries while we cannot. Luckily, baneberries taste extremely bitter, so if you do pop one in your mouth, you will probably spit it out in seconds, and you would be very unlikely to eat enough berries to do you serious harm. We once had a guest eat a baneberry, and several minutes later, he asked what the shiny, red berries were and said they tasted terrible. We kept a close eye on him, but he suffered no ill effects from his baneberry experience.

The first symptoms of baneberry toxicity include blistering and burning of the mouth and throat. These are followed by dizziness, sharp stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and death by cardiac arrest or respiratory paralysis. The toxicity of the baneberry is caused by the chemical ranunculin. Ranunculin releases protoanemonin whenever the plant is damaged, such as by chewing. Protoanemonin is a skin irritant and causes blistering of the skin. If the berry is ingested, it has a similar effect on the mucous membranes of the esophagus, stomach, and intestines as it did on the skin. Eventually, it affects the respiratory system and the heart.

Native Americans used the baneberry as a medicinal but were well aware of its toxic properties. Various tribes used the baneberry root to treat menstrual cramps, postpartum pain, and menopausal symptoms. Cheyenne Indians used an infusion of baneberry leaves to increase a mother’s milk supply, and they used the berry itself to induce vomiting. Some tribes applied the juice of the baneberry to the tips of their arrows to make their arrowheads even more deadly.

I could find no reports of baneberries being used to murder someone, either in the real world or in literature. They would make a great murder weapon in one of my novels, but they would have to be sweetened and perhaps added to other berries to convince one of my characters to eat them.

Next week, I’ll investigate the properties of beautiful monkshood.

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Poisonous Plants

Deadly Baneberries

I have always been fascinated by poisonous plants. I write murder mysteries, and what better murder weapon than a toxin from a naturally occurring plant? We have several poisonous plants here on Kodiak Island, and over the next few weeks, I will describe a few of them.

In the summer, most of Kodiak Island is covered by a dense jungle-like growth. We have beautiful wildflowers and plants bearing delicious berries, including salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, and others. Rhubarb and raspberries planted by early settlers remain abundant in some areas.

Cow Parsnip (Wild Celery)

There are a few plants here, though, that are not so innocent. The sap and outer hairs of cow parsnip, locally called pushki and one of the most prolific plants on the island, contains the chemical furanocoumarin which causes an extreme sensitivity to light. If a person comes into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip plant, within a few days, he will likely develop a red, itchy rash and blisters on the area the sap touched. These blistering sores last for days or weeks. I often use a weed eater to clear vegetation around the house, and I’ve learned the hard way not to cut cow parsnip with a weed eater because when the sap flies from the plant and splatters my hands and face, I know I will have painful, ugly, red welts in a few days. Some people are not allergic to cow parsnip, and others are so allergic they will react if they merely touch the stems or leaves of the plant.

Nettles

Nettles are another troublesome plant on Kodiak. Fine, stinging hairs cover the leaves of a nettle. Some researchers believe formic acid causes the hairs to sting, while others attribute the sting to a histamine compound. If you touch the leaves of a mature plant, you will feel a prick, much like a wasp’s sting. The pain may last for a few hours but will eventually subside. Nettles lose their sting when cooked and taste delicious, much like spinach. Nettles also have many medicinal applications and may be used to ease sore muscles and joint inflammation

While these plants can be irritating and painful and make walking through the dense vegetation on Kodiak a challenge, neither cow parsnip nor nettles will kill a human. Over the next few weeks, I will cover the deadly toxic plants we have in our area and give accounts of cases where they have been used both in literature and in the real world.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

I mentioned last week in my post about sea stars that beaches on Kodiak teem with an abundant variety of brightly colored sea stars. Sadly, though, sea stars are not as abundant here as they were a few years ago. I took a walk on the beach yesterday and was alarmed by how few sea stars I saw. Those I did see looked healthy, but the vast majority were wiped out by a deadly virus.

 In June 2013, sea stars along the Pacific coast of the United States began dying in large numbers. Die-offs of sea stars have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s but never of this magnitude. Within just three years, millions of sea stars from California to Alaska died from a disease called sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). Sea stars with SSWS develop white lesions in the ectoderm quickly followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions which leads to fragmentation of the body and death. Biologists estimated 95% of some sea star populations were decimated by SSWS. While most species of sea stars were affected by SSWS, ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) were especially hard hit.

 The syndrome was first noticed in ochre stars in June 2013 along the coast of Washington state. In August 2013, divers reported a massive die-off of sunflower stars just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. In October and November 2013, large numbers of dead sea stars were noted in Monterrey, California, and by mid-December, SSWS had reached southern California. In the summer of 2014, the disease had spread to Mexico and parts of Oregon. SSWS was first reported in Alaska in Kachemak Bay in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that sea stars began dying in large numbers in Alaska.

 Biologists are certain sea stars are dying from a virus, but when they isolated the virus, they realized this virus was present in preserved museum samples taken from as far back in the 1940s. They believe some other factor such as increased water temperature or a change in pH is stressing seas stars and allowing an otherwise dormant virus to rage through their populations. Researchers noted an increase in ocean water temperature preceded the outbreak of SSWS, and in areas where the water temperature rose the most, the disease was more widespread. To test the theory that increased water temperature played a big role in the breakout of the disease, scientists placed sea stars in aquarium tanks ranging in temperature from 54 degrees to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The results were clear, the hotter the tank, the more quickly the sea stars succumbed to wasting.

The drastic reduction in sea star populations is evident on Kodiak Island, and biologists worry how the loss of sea stars will affect the intertidal community. Sea stars are considered a keystone species, important to maintaining diversity in the marine environment. Sea stars eat mussels and sea urchins whose numbers could now explode and decrease biodiversity in intertidal and subtidal communities.

 Scientists consider the recent outbreak of SSWS the single largest, most geographically widespread disease ever recorded, and as ocean temperatures keep rising, they fear the outbreak of the disease will continue.

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