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The problems that plagued and eventually closed the late-spring coastal razor clam season seems to have now spread to the Dungeness crab fisheries off the southern coast.

State Fish and Wildlife announced this past week, the immediate closure of sport and commercial Dungeness crab fishing from the Washington-Oregon border north to Point Chehalis off the southern jetty at Westport in Grays Harbor County due to a rise in marine toxin levels. The closure also includes the Columbia River and inside Willapa Bay.

The area north of Point Chehalis, including Grays Harbor, still remains open to sport and commercial crabbing.

Water samples recently collected by state Fish and Wildlife showed the levels of domoic acid, a natural marine toxin, had spiked. If ingested by humans, the toxin can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pains. Other symptoms could include dizziness, disorientation, seizures and difficulty breathing. In a worst-case scenario the toxin affects the brain and can even be fatal. Cooking or freezing doesn’t rid the toxin in shellfish.

State fisheries closed what had been an excellent razor clam season back in mid-May when the toxin levels climbed above the threshold level.

“We’ve been closely watching toxin levels in shellfish since closing beaches for razor clamming,” Dan Ayres, the head state Fish and Wildlife coastal shellfish manager said in a news release. “Domoic acid shows up more quickly in razor clams than in crabs.”

All crab gear must be removed from the closed areas by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, June 10 or it will could be confiscated by state fisheries enforcement. All crab caught up until then must be released into the water.

Ayres says this is the first Dungeness crab fishery closure since 2003 when a similar incident occurred.

Domoic acid — first detected off the Pacific coast in 1991 — is caused by a single-celled plant called a diatom, and toxin builds up in the meat of the filter-feeding shellfish such as razor clams that ingest it.

 

Experts say a huge pool of warmer than normal water in the Pacific Ocean off the coast and extending north into the Gulf of Alaska referred to as “the blob” has water temperatures spiking up. This coupled with El Nino could have a negative effect not only on shellfish, but for other fish species such as salmon.

“The ocean water regime is shifting with El Nino concerns and warmer conditions in the ocean … we might be faced with these types of situations more often than not moving forward,” Ayres said in a story from last month. “Warm ocean water temperatures have created ideal conditions for the algae that produce domoic acid.”

Testing of other shellfish in Willapa Bay like oysters, hard-shell clams and mussels show they remain safe to consume. The two exceptions are razor clams and Dungeness crabs. The harvest of mussels elsewhere on the coast is closed annually from April 1 to Oct. 31.