The sport season for Dungeness crab remains open inside the Columbia estuary and Willapa Bay, but sport and commercial harvest is currently off limits in coastal areas due to elevated marine toxin levels.

ILWACO — Pacific County’s popular recreational Dungeness crab fishery remains mostly open after test results released Dec. 11 found crab inside the Columbia River and Willapa Bay are within safety guidelines for the marine toxin domoic acid.

However, the commercial crab season will remain closed until at least Jan. 1 Cape Falcon, Oregon north to the U.S./Canada border. The outer coast is also closed to sport crabbing.

Commercial closure

The commercial season had been set to start Dec. 16, depending on whether crab reached required minimum meat standards. The additional delay beyond the traditional Dec. 1 start date will mean hardship for many local fishing families and the businesses that depend on crabbing paychecks at Christmastime.

“This decision was based on domoic acid tests of Dungeness crab collected by WDFW and analyzed by the Washington Department of Health (DOH) which shows that areas off Long Beach have crab with their viscera testing above the federal domoic acid action level of 30 parts per million (ppm),” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in an industry notice.

Excess domoic levels were found in crab caught on Dec. 5 at seven fathoms in the Peacock Spit area near Cape Disappointment. Levels from 30 to 36 ppm were found.

Domoic acid, a naturally occurring byproduct sometimes produced by a type of marine microorganism, has forced cancellation of recreational razor clam digs on the Washington coast since Oct. 21. Crab tend to be slower to uptake the toxin from the environment. It accumulates in their guts or “butter,” and not in their meat. But since crab are often sold whole — and exported to Asia where the butter sometimes is eaten — health officials close the season when the safety threshold is surpassed. Domoic levels last forced a lengthy season delay in December 2015.

Recreational decision

“The latest domoic acid test results have come in on Dungeness crab for both Willapa Bay and inside the Columbia River (from the outer jetty tips up river), and sport crabbing will remain open in those areas,” WDFW said.

Tests on Dec. 9 found domoic levels between 1 and 21 ppm in the Columbia estuary near Sand Island and between 1 and 17 ppm in Willapa.

Recreational crabbing is enthusiastically pursued in Pacific County, in part thanks to a 12 male crab daily limit and a minimum size of 5 ¾ inches.

The outer coast from Queets River to the mouth of the Columbia, including Westport and Grays Harbor, are closed to recreational crabbing. The closure extends to the north side of North Jetty in Cape Disappointment State Park, but crabbing is permitted on the south, river-facing side.

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