Crabs safe after toxin scare, but prices plummet

Ron Malast/For EO Media Group Dungeness crab absorb the marine toxin domoic acid when they eat razor clams contaminated with the substance. The acid levels are safe now, and the crab is tasty and consumer prices low.

PORTLAND — A toxic algae bloom that shut down the West Coast’s entire shellfish industry may actually be good news for crab lovers, according to some crabbers.

The price for crabs has plummeted because people are hesitant to buy them after the highly-publicized toxin scare, reported The Oregonian. But the creatures are safe to eat.

“The consumer is going to get a far superior product,” said John Corbin, head of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission. “They’re going to get a great, stuffed-full crab right now.”

Oregon’s crabbing season opened Jan. 1, months after the typical date. It was delayed by an algae bloom that mixed with the “blob” of unusually warm El Niño waters.

Fishing didn’t resume until a couple weeks after the crabs tested negative for domoic acid three times.

But even with the toxin, the crabs would have been safe to eat. The creatures store domoic acid only in their guts, or “butter,” and not in the meat, according to Hugh Links, director of the Oregon Crab Commission.

When Dungeness crabs tested positive for domoic acid in the early 1990s, 2003 and 2004, the crab industry kept on harvesting. Razor clams and mussels keep the poison in their meat, so they were unsafe to eat, but crab fishers simply killed the crabs, ditched the butter and sold the meat.

This year was different because of Asia’s newfound appetite for the crabs. For the past eight years, Chinese crab buyers have paid high-dollar prices for live crabs to export to Asia. According to Corbin, about 40 percent of Oregon’s crabs have been sent to China alive in the last few years.

So crab fishers decided they’d rather wait until the toxin cleared, allowing them to sell live crabs.

“We didn’t want to go down that road and lose that live market,” Corbin said. “We opted to stay put until we were sure the crab were in excellent shape.”

The delay meant Dungeness weren’t available for the holiday season, when many families make a crab dinner and Dungeness can go for $13 a pound. Crab season was delayed in California, too, and still hasn’t opened.

“When you miss that window, the whole season is kind of shot anyway,” said Lyf Gildersleeve, who owns Flying Fish Market in Portland. “It’ll be fine for the next month or two months, but as we get further into the spring, crabs are available, I’ll have them for retail and they won’t sell. It’s unbelievable.”

The opening price for crab is negotiated with the state just before the season’s start. It was $2.90 per pound this year, down from $3.10 last year.

“We’re hoping they’ll go up, but our production is dropping off already,” said crabber Rick Lillienthal, who estimated he pulled in about 45,000 pounds two weeks into the season. “They’ll work out. It’s going to take a little while for people to get over their fears.”

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