OLYMPIA - With marine toxin levels still hovering at levels deemed unsafe to human health, coastal beaches will remain closed to razor clam digging at least until next fall, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has announced.
Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager, said the decision to officially end the 2002-03 razor clam season was prompted by the latest round of toxin samples, which showed that domoic acid levels in razor clams continue to exceed state health standards.
"The test results dashed any hopes of an opening before the clams begin to spawn," Ayres said. "Now we just have to keep our fingers crossed that toxin levels will drop sufficiently that we can open beaches for digging in fall."
Elevated levels of domoic acid have kept coastal beaches in Washington and Oregon closed to razor clam digging throughout the season, which began in October of 2002. Similar conditions prompted season-long closures in Washington in 1991-92 and again in 1998-99.
Domoic acid, a marine toxin produced by the pseudo-nitzschia algae, can cause serious illness, loss of short-term memory and even death if ingested in sufficient quantities. In 1987, when the first cases of domoic acid poisoning were reported in North America, three people died and 107 became ill after eating toxin-laden mussels from Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada.
No toxin-related deaths have ever been reported in Washington, and no cases of domoic acid poisoning have been reported in the state since toxin levels in coastal waters skyrocketed in October of 2002.
"That is definitely the good news from this season," Ayres said. "We really hate to tell people they can't go digging, but public health has to be our first priority."
The Washington Department of Health (DOH), which has the responsibility for monitoring shellfish contamination, has assured the public that all commercially harvested shellfish currently in the market place have been subjected to a rigorous testing program and are safe for consumption.
Under protocols established by DOH, domoic acid levels in all razor clam samples taken from a beach must test below 20 parts per million (ppm) for two consecutive weeks before WDFW can open a fishery. Shortly after the scheduled season opener last October, toxin levels jumped as high as 185 ppm at some beaches, then slowly began to decline but never far enough to meet the DOH standard.
At Long Beach, where toxin levels have generally been the lowest of any of Washington's five razor clam beaches, clam meat tested May 12 still showed concentrations of domoic acid at 39 ppm. In tests conducted May 4-5, toxin levels were 38 ppm at Twin Harbors, 43 ppm at Mocrocks, 54 ppm at Copalis and 84 ppm at Kalaloch.
"Since March, we've been sampling every two weeks at Long Beach, where we thought we had the best chance of an opening," Ayres said. "We gave it our best shot, but we ran out of time. Once the spawning period gets under way in early June, we need to give the clams time to fatten up and recover."
Although scientists have not found a way to control toxin-producing algae blooms, they are developing better methods of 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. On May 14, Governor Locke signed legislation into law that will provide continued funding for that effort and the DOH testing program through a $3 surcharge on shellfish licenses and a $2 surcharge on combination fishing licenses.
In addition, a team of scientists from the University of Washington and several federal agencies recently received a $8.7 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to study a potential source of domoic acid in Northwest waters. Previous research by team members suggests that an eddy off the Strait of Juan de Fuca may serve as a focal point for pseudo-nitzschia algae blooms, that can cause elevated toxin levels. The five-year study is designed to determine how the eddy functions, and find ways to predict and monitor domoic acid outbreaks on the Washington coast.