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Our View: Scientific monitoring of Dungeness crab population is more necessary than ever

Published on November 21, 2017 12:01AM

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian
A Dungeness crab caught by researchers near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Colin Murphey/The Daily Astorian A Dungeness crab caught by researchers near the mouth of the Columbia River.

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A delay in the start of Dungeness crab season is nothing new. Dec. 1 is the first possible date, but seldom the actual one in recent years. In fact, timing the season’s start to get better prices and ensure high quality crab is a sign of sophistication on the part of regulators, processors and the fleet.

As noted in our story last week, however, delays are hard on the families of crab workers and boat crew members. The first weeks of crab season are famous for fat paychecks, which go toward catching up with bills and putting presents under the tree. If the closure goes past Christmas — and it easily may considering how slowly crab are hardening and putting on meat this year — it will be important to step with donations to food banks and gift drives.

Beyond this immediate issue, there are both long-term concerns and things we can feel good about when it comes to the status of this locally vital fishery. The Tri-State Agreement that governs crabbing off Oregon, California and Washington was made permanent by Congress this August. Since 1998, it has created a “sustainable, science-based fishery management program that keeps fishermen fishing and crab stocks thriving,” according to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

This coast-wide system avoids crab in any one area from being plundered when other stretches of the coast are closed. This year, as a processor told The Daily Astorian last week, this approach led to the decision, “Whatever’s better for the commodity is best — which is letting the crab sit and grow.”

This attitude has made Dungeness crab consistently one of the most lucrative fisheries on the West Coast. Catches cycle up and down, but it is one fishery that doesn’t ever seem to be on the brink of disaster.

It’s good people have grown smarter about managing crab harvests, because there are other threats that need attention — everything from the acidifying ocean to competition with other industries for offshore areas.

There was confusion on the part of some out-of-area news media about this delay, which they incorrectly attributed in part to the marine toxin domoic acid. Domoic is an issue that defies easy understanding or solutions, with some species of the marine planktonic diatom Pseudo-nitzschia sometimes creating it as a byproduct and sometimes not.

At least here around the mouth of the Columbia River, so far this year it isn’t making much domoic. Recreational razor clam digs, which depend on domoic levels below 20 parts per million, have been approved this fall. Dungeness seasons are permitted when crab have up to 29 ppm in their guts. Tests on crab in the Grayland, Washington area found a maximum value of 12 ppm in one crab collected Nov. 5. No domoic at all was detected during testing Oct. 24 off the Long Beach Peninsula. All are safe to eat.

Big city media aren’t wrong, however, to worry about changing ocean chemistry, temperature and other conditions. There’s no telling when domoic might next become a problem in our area. In the longer term, slight increases in seawater acidity could interfere with crab-shell formation or harm the ocean food web that crab rely on.

In addition to the Tri-State Agreement’s sensible management regime, coastal communities must continue actively advocating for scientific monitoring and research of all the factors affecting the health of crab and other fisheries. Only by fully understanding the threats to sea life will we have any realistic chance of making sure crab are around for future generations.


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