Closures are also a blow to the economy

There are parts of the world, even parts of the U.S., where eating crab is not for the weak of stomach. Thankfully, this definitely isn’t one of them.

A product of cold north Pacific water, our local Dungeness crab are predators that eat clams and other shellfish, as well as small fish and scavenged meat. Here at the mouth of the Columbia River, they particularly love razor clams — a preference they share with the many human fans of clams. Thanks to their diet, Dungeness crab have a sweet and mild flavor and aroma. Served up with bowls of melted butter, they are one of the West Coast’s favorite seafood treats.

All this goodness adds up to a reputation that is important to protect. So last week’s news that the Dungeness season’s start will be delayed beyond its traditional Dec. 1 start was greeted with somewhat less disappointment than might have been expected. John Corbin, a fisherman whose company has two Dungeness crab boats in Warrenton, was quoted, “This year they’re full enough, but we want to make sure the crab is good quality and safe for the public. When things are right, we will go at it.”

Delays in crab season, for other reasons, are not a surprise. Not infrequently, testing finds they have not yet become meaty enough to justify harvesting. The start date is pushed back — sometimes by a month. Boat owners factor this into their budgets, while crab frozen the year before typically addresses immediate consumer demand.

Delays are harder news for boat crews, who often rely on pre-Christmas paychecks for a good deal of holiday shopping and bill paying.

Crab money also circulates through our communities, helping keep many others employed. Few fisheries in the world approach Dungeness crab in terms of local economic importance. This closure, especially if it drags on much beyond the start of the new year, will hurt.

Domoic acid, the cause of this closure, was unknown on the West Coast before the 1990s. Like other toxins produced by marine microorganisms, it has been on the upswing, possibly due to warming ocean waters, low-oxygen zones or other changes in the ocean environment. Absorbed by razor clams and other filter-feeders, domoic acid typically does them no harm, and they process the algae that contain the toxin like any other food. When crab eat the clams, they also become contaminated with toxin.

The ongoing closure of recreational clam seasons are another blow to the local economy, especially in Washington state. Clams are rather slow to clear the toxin from their systems. Recent clam testing finds toxin levels still above safety limits.

The onset of winter, with colder air and water temperatures, should begin clearing toxins. Even now, crab off the central and northern Washington coast are considered safe — but are only available to tribal-affiliated fishermen.

This issue warrants serious attention from the Pacific Northwest’s congressional delegation and by federal and state agencies. A long and drawn-out closure will justify disaster assistance — every bit as much as any other natural catastrophe.

Going forward, we need research into how human intervention might influence algal blooms and mitigate toxin production. Beyond this, humanity as a whole must concentrate on repairing ocean habitats and keeping matters from getting any worse.

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