Dangerous toxin, potentially causing paralysis, closes Northland shellfish beds

A dangerous toxin has closed shellfish beds on the west coast of the upper North Island at a time when some locals need them most.

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Gathering kai off the beach is a part of life for many in the region. Source: 1 NEWS

Gathering kai off the beach is part of life for many in the region, and as job losses and poverty hit hard, their natural larder is now off limits.

It comes as a dangerous toxin that can cause paralysis and respiratory failure has been found in shellfish in the region - including mussels, kina, cockles and tuatua.

The Ministry for Primary Industries issued the public health warning to the Northland west coast region on Friday on their website, saying warning signs on beaches would be posted in the coming days.

“Another warning remains in place for the west coast of the North Island – from South Head (Manukau Harbour entrance) to Tirua Point (south of Kawhia),” the alert said.

“Routine tests on shellfish samples taken from these regions have shown levels of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins above the safe limit of 0.8 mg/kg set by MPI. Anyone eating shellfish from this area is potentially at risk of illness,” the warning said.

Marine scientist and professor Andrea Alfaro says the consequences of eating deadly shellfish can be life-threatening.

“There’s a range of health issues: nausea, depending on the concentrations, vomiting and diarrhoea and even potential death,” she says.

The ban extends along the west coast from Kaipara Harbour in the south to the bottom of 90 Mile Beach in the north. It includes popular mussel beds near the Hokianga Harbour.

There are no signs on the beaches yet. Instead, MPI issued the warning on social media. But there is concern some remote communities there don't have internet coverage and people continue to collect kai moana without knowing the danger.

For one family, the need outweighs the risk.

“We have to. We gotta eat. It takes the weight off our meat in our freezers and the money in the pocket, yeah,” says Lindsey Teuruae.

Te Rarawa general manager George Riley says people on low incomes in the region will be affected.

“It's a supplementary food supply for our people who have low incomes, so it's necessary for us to be able to harvest food locally - just to be able to survive on the phenomenally low wages and incomes that we have,” he says.

Experts say pāua, crab and crayfish can still be eaten if the gut has been completely removed before cooking.

If anyone does gets sick after eating shellfish from the area, experts advise to get medical attention quickly.