LONG BEACH, Wash. - The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has announced plans to open coastal beaches for razor clam digging later this month - provided that a final round of marine toxin tests shows the clams are safe to eat.

If the results of those tests are favorable, the department will authorize a razor clam dig Sept. 26, Sept. 27 and possibly Sept. 28 on evening tides at all five of the state's razor clam beaches, said Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager.

Coastal beaches tentatively scheduled to open for digging include Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Mockrocks, Copalis and Kalaloch. No digging would be allowed at any beach before noon.

"We're really hopeful that we'll be able to open Washington's coastal beaches to razor clam digging," said Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager. "After months of elevated toxin levels, we're waiting on the results of one more test to make absolutely sure state beaches are safe for digging."

If WDFW proceeds with the late September opening, it would be the first opportunity to dig razor clams on Washington beaches since the spring of 2002. High levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin potentially fatal to humans that is stored in the meat of razor clams, required WDFW to suspend razor clam digging at all state beaches throughout the eight-month season that began in October of 2002.

It was the third such season-long closure in Washington since 1991, when the toxin was first detected on the West Coast.

Ayres noted that domoic acid levels in razor clams recently tested on state razor clam beaches were all below 20 parts per million - the state and federal health standard. Under protocols established by the Washington Department of Health (DOH), all samples on each beach must meet that standard in two separate two sets of collections taken between 7 to 10 days apart.

Ayres said he expects to receive the results of the second round of tests from DOH on Sept. 24. WDFW's decision about whether to proceed with the late-September opening will be publicized that same day on WDFW's Website (http://www.wa.gov/wdfw/), on the department's Shellfish Hotline (1-866-880-5431) and through statewide media.

In recent weeks, Ayres has been holding public meetings throughout western Washington to solicit ideas about how to structure the 2003-04 razor clam season. Provided that domoic acid levels remain low enough to allow digging, WDFW will release plans for a series of openings beginning in October.

"The proposed opening later this month falls outside our scheduling procedure," Ayres said. "But the tides will be favorable for digging and we'd really like to give people a chance to get some clams before October, when a new outbreak of domoic acid is historically most likely to occur. Especially after this past year, we don't want to let any opportunities for a dig go by."