OLYMPIA - High levels of domoic acid found in Dungeness crab caught in Willapa Bay prompted the Washington State Department of Health and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to close all crab fishing in the bay beginning Friday, Feb. 7. Other state agencies, including the Department of Agriculture, are taking additional steps to protect the health of consumers.
Commercial and recreational fishing is closed for all species of crab inside Willapa Bay in Pacific County. The Department of Health has found unsafe levels of domoic acid, a marine toxin that causes amnesic shellfish poison (ASP), in samples of Dungeness crab from Willapa Bay.
The Department of Health routinely monitors for domoic acid in crab throughout the fall/winter crab season. Willapa Bay is the only area where levels of domoic acid exceeded the closure levels. Crab samples from other coastal monitoring areas have continued to test at safe levels.
"All commercially harvested Dungeness crab currently on the market has been thoroughly tested and should be safe to eat," said Frank Cox, coordinator of the Marine Biotoxin Monitoring Program at the Department of Health. "However we must take every precaution where domoic acid is concerned." Ingesting high levels of domoic acid can cause ASP, producing vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, dizziness and a variety of other ailments. There is no antidote for ASP and extreme cases can result in death, although Cox said there have been no known fatalities from ASP in Washington state.
"This is the first time since 1991 that Willapa Bay crab fishery has been closed due to domoic acid," said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for Fish and Wildlife.
Besides closing the Willapa Bay crab fishery to both recreational and commercial fishing, precautionary measures taken by the departments of Health, Fish and Wildlife, and Agriculture require that:
- Effective immediately, any crab captured in either commercial or recreational gear in Willapa Bay must be returned to the water.
- All crab gear must be removed from the bay by 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 9, or it will be subject to confiscation by Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers.
- Processing plants are required to eviscerate any crab caught in Willapa Bay after Feb. 3 before sending it to market.
- No commercially caught crab may be transported through Willapa Bay until 12:01 a.m. Monday, Feb. 10.
Most other species of shellfish from Willapa Bay - including oysters, hard-shell clams and mussels - have continued to test at safe levels and remain safe to eat. The exception is razor clams, which have been closed to digging at the mouth of Willapa Bay and along the coast for months due to high domoic acid levels. Ayres believes high toxin levels in razor clams and Willapa Bay crabs may be linked, because crabs feed on razor clams.
Cooking does not destroy domoic acid. It is a natural marine toxin that is produced by a type of marine plankton. Domoic acid is concentrated in the gut (commonly called crab butter) and does not easily migrate to the meat. Crab butter should be removed and discarded.
Recreational harvesters should check for biotoxin closures by calling the state Department of Health's biotoxin hotline at 1-800-562-5632, or checking the Department's Marine Biotoxin Web site, www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/sf/biotoxin.htm. Harvesters should also look for and obey warning signs that have been posted at marinas and on recreational beaches in Willapa Bay.