PENINSULA - The 2002-03 clamming season, an event which draws thousands of people to the beaches of the Peninsula each year, looks doubtful, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

On Oct. 1, the WDFW cancelled the first razor clam dig of the season which was set for Oct. 5-7. On Friday, Oct. 25 the WDFW said it was again delaying the clamming season - this time for at least another several months due to high domoic level acid levels detected by the Washington Department of Health (DOH).

"I'm sorry to say that marine toxin levels on the coast are not only high, but getting higher," said WDFW Razor Clam Fisheries Manager Dan Ayres. "Judging from past experience, it could take a number of months for those toxin levels to subside."

The announcement last Friday affects not only the Peninsula, but the entire Washington coast, since toxicology results showed that domoic acid levels in clams sampled at all five state razor clam beaches far exceed the threshold deemed safe for human consumption. Oregon beaches have also been closed to razor clam digging since Oct. 10 due to high levels of domoic acid, a naturally occurring marine toxin.

"Essentially, with the levels we are looking at it will be at least a several month delay," said Ayres. "In the 1998-99 season, when we had a similar situation, we didn't have a season at all. And, based on that, it doesn't look good for this year."

Ayres said when WDFW initially decided to postpone the clamming season in early October this was based on a dramatic increase in domoic acid levels being seen coast-wide. This decision was based on tests done on Sept. 30, which showed that on some of Washington's coastal beaches the amount of domoic acid detected was above the 20 parts per million (ppm) action level.

"At that point the Long Beach Peninsula had risen dramatically, but it had not risen above the 20 parts per million level," said Ayres. "We were advised by the Washington Department of Health not to open any beaches for clamming."

At that time, in late September, the level of domoic acid detected on the Peninsula was about 16 ppm. By Oct. 6 more samples were collected, which was the weekend the clam season opener was scheduled. At that time the level on the Peninsula had risen to 38 ppm - just in that one week since Sept. 30.

"So, you can see it was a good decision not to open the clamming season," said Ayres. "We had a similar situation on the Twin Harbors Beach north of the Peninsula. At that beach, on Sept. 30, the level was also at 16 for the high. And then by Oct. 6 it had risen to 60 parts per million."

By Oct. 20 when new samples were collected on the Peninsula, the levels of domoic acid detected soared to 132 ppm. Twin Harbors also saw a marked increase to 113 ppm. According to Ayres, these levels are very high even when compared to those detected in the 1998-99 season, when there was no clamming. During that season, the highest level detected on the Peninsula was 81 ppm.

The highest toxin levels in razor clams dug Oct. 20-21 were found at Mocrocks (Iron Springs to Moclips) with 188 ppm, followed by Copalis (185 ppm), Long Beach (132 ppm) and Twin Harbors (113 ppm). Ayres said he was unsure why the levels of domoic are so high this year.

"We don't know a lot about domoic acid," said Ayres. "We are in the middle of a federal study to see what causes these plankton blooms and subsequently these levels of domoic acid to rise."

With many Peninsula businesses counting on the revenues from clammers each year, the impact of another delay in the 2002-03 clamming season is not to be taken lightly, according to Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau Executive Director Una Boyle.

"It certainly has a significant impact on the merchants," said Boyle. "The restaurants and hotels and RV parks do well, especially if the clamming season runs over several days contiguously."

Businesses, such as Jack's Country Store in Ocean Park, count on the revenues each year during the clamming season. Jack's Store Manager Tom Downer said the clamming season definitely affects the number of tourists on the north end of the Peninsula between the months of October and April.

"Obviously we are disappointed," said Downer. "It's difficult to determine how much clamming contributes to our overall revenues, but if I were to take a look at last year's wonderful clam digging season, I would say it would affect our revenue by 5 percent to 8 percent each month."

Downer said this reduction in revenue, unfortunately, translates into possible reductions in hours for existing staff or even a possible loss of staff, although he said there are no plans for either at this time.

The effects of a delayed clamming season, and possibility of no clamming season all together this year, will also be felt in Long Beach, said Long Beach City Administrator Nabiel Shawa.

"It's a significant blow," said Shawa. "It is sure to make a difference to the merchants. The clamming season this year would have been a great way to top off one of the best summers in years. It is really a negative blow to our economy."

Shawa said that clamming over the last 15 to 20 years has been a boon to merchants, but a source of revenue which can never be counted on, due to the nature of toxins which can be present in clams.

"What's really sad about this situation is that there is a huge population of clams out there," said Shawa. "Hopefully, people can be back out there by December."

Ayres said WDFW will continue to send razor clams to the Washington Department of Health for every two weeks to monitor toxin levels. He said WDFW will let the public know as soon as toxin counts return to safe levels.

That, unfortunately, could take a while, said Ayres. In 1998-99, the last season domoic acid levels climbed so high, the entire coastal razor clam season was closed for the year.

"I still hold out hope that we can at least have some digging in the spring," Ayres said. "But I definitely can't make any promises at this point. Amnesic shellfish poisoning is serious business."

Ayres urged people not to dig or eat fresh razor clams until WDFW announces they are safe to eat. He said tests done by DOH every two weeks will be posted on WDFW's web site at: fish/shelfish/razorclm/levels/levels.

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