OLYMPIA - The prospect of a spring razor clam dig dimmed today when tests conducted earlier this week revealed that domoic acid levels at two ocean beaches still exceed the amount deemed safe for human consumption.
Although concentrations of the marine toxin continue to decline at Long Beach and Twin Harbors, some samples tested this week still exceed the state's health standard of 20 parts per million (ppm), said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
Domoic acid levels at the state's other three razor clam beaches - Mocrocks, Copalis and Kalaloch - have continued to test well above the state standard and will likely remain closed until fall, Ayres said.
"There's still an outside chance of a spring opening - particularly at Long Beach - but it's going to be close," said Ayres, noting that no clam digging will be allowed after May when razor clams begin to spawn. "Basically it's turned into a race against time."
Under protocols established by the Washington Department of Health (DOH), domoic acid levels in all samples taken from a beach must test below 20 ppm for two consecutive weeks before WDFW can open a fishery.
At Long Beach, two of three samples collected in each of the past two weeks have tested below the threshold, but the third has exceeded it, Ayres said. At Twin Harbors, samples taken April 14 tested in the low- to mid-30s.
Samples will be collected from all five razor clam beaches April 21 for another round of tests, Ayres said. Updates on seasons and domoic acid levels are available on WDFW's toll-free Shellfish Rule Change Hotline at 1-866-880-5431 or on the department's website at www.wdfw.wa.gov/fish/shelfish/razorclm/levels/levels.htm
All Washington razor clam beaches have been closed to clam digging since October 2002, when prolific coastal algal blooms caused domoic acid levels to soar as high as 185 ppm in some areas. Similar conditions prompted season-long closures in 1991-92 and again in 1998-99 to protect human health.
Ingesting high levels of domoic acid can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP), producing vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dizziness and a variety of other ailments. Extreme cases can result in death, although there have been no known fatalities from ASP in Washington state.
There is no antidote for ASP, and neither cooking nor freezing the clams lessens the toxicity. DOH, which has the responsibility for monitoring shellfish contamination, has assured the public that all commercially harvested razor clams and other commercial shellfish currently available in the marketplace have been subjected to rigorous testing and are safe for consumption.
Ayres said shellfish managers are well aware of the hardship caused by the season closure - both to recreational diggers and to coastal communities that rely on their business. Recreational clam digging can attract as many as 10,000 people to coastal beaches on a given day, generating more than $4.5 million in annual economic benefits for coastal communities.
In March, WDFW was invited by the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee to travel to Washington D.C to provide testimony regarding the impacts these domoic acid outbreaks have on the small coastal communities in Washington State.
Although scientists have not found a way to control toxin-producing algae blooms, they are developing better methods for detecting when they have occurred. Since 1999, WDFW has been working with variety of federal, state and educational organizations through the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom (ORHAB) partnership to develop an "early warning system" for marine toxin outbreaks.
The new monitoring system, which detects toxicity in coastal waters, helped to confirm indications of increasing domoic acid levels in clams at the start of the 2002-03 season.