UPDATE, Nov. 12: The state Department of Health says Dungeness crab from the Washington coast is safe to eat. The agency's tests for domoic acid came in well below the threshold that would trigger a delay or total shutdown of the crab season.
Officials will run another set of tests before the season opener, which happens after the crabs get big enough for harvest, normally sometime in December.
Dungeness crab is a favorite seafood that many people look forward to this time of year. But there’s a chance the warm water off the coast that recently shut down the razor clam season in Washington could prevent the Dungeness crab harvest as well.
In October, the clams tested positive for high levels of domoic acid. It comes from a kind of algae called pseudo-nitzschia, which can thrive when oceans are warm. The acid doesn’t hurt the clams or the crabs, but is a neurotoxin that affects humans and other vertebrates.
"The Dungeness crab eat the razor clams. So we also want to monitor Dungeness crab," said Shelley Lankford, the supervisor of the state Department of Health biotoxins laboratory in Shoreline.
She said testing the crabs is a two-phased process, starting with the animal’s innards — the so-called crab butter, where toxins are concentrated — and only proceeding to the rest of the meat from the crab’s legs and body if there's a positive result.
Lankford said these tests are routine.
"At Christmas time, crab’s really popular, especially New Year's for meals during the holidays," she said. "So we start looking at the crab to see what their levels are."
But, this year, many scientists are seeing water samples with very high levels of pseudo-nitzschia. And the levels have been rising. It’s reminiscent of conditions seen in 2015, when a large area of warm water off the coast persisted long enough to become known as "the Blob."
There was heightened concern on Tuesday morning when Clayton Parson, a technician from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, pulled up in his pickup truck outside the state Department of Health lab.
He pulled three bags full of healthy-looking Dungeness crab, wrapped in thick plastic, from the back of his truck. They came from beaches in Westport, Long Beach, and Willapa Bay.
"These are already all cooked, whole-cooked and ready to process for DOH," Parson said as he got ready to deliver them.
The crabs are at least six inches wide, just what someone might harvest. And they’re cooked because even if you boil them, the toxin the health department is worried about remains. That’s why authorities closed beaches for clam digging in October.
Parson has worked the beaches for 30 years. He said the clam closure is already hitting the coastal communities hard, economically and also emotionally.
"Especially right now," he said, with the pandemic having shut down so much.
Normally, the Dungeness crab season starts sometime in December.
"A lot of people are going to the coast and trying to do things and keep positive attitudes," but with no clam digging now and the looming possibility of no Dungeness crab, he said his agency gets calls daily from coastal businesses worried about the toxic algae.
"So we're always praying for storms this time of year, for sure," he said.
Storms are one of the factors that could cool the ocean water or disperse the high concentrations of the harmful pseudo-nitzschia algae.
Health and wildlife authorities stress that it’s too early to worry about a total closure of the crab season. The last time they had to do that was in 2015 – and the only other time before that was in 2003.
But if they have to close it, the consequences would be considerable. They estimate that close to $100 million is generated from the razor clamming and Dungeness crab fisheries every year.
CORRECTION, Nov. 17: this story has been updated with the correct spelling of Clayton Parson's last name. We regret the error.