LONG BEACH - In a big blow to local spirits and the coastal economy, rising levels of the marine toxin paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) have put a stop to a razor clam dig here this week.
It's possible other Washington beaches will be impacted after more test results are released this week, but the coast from Seaview to Leadbetter was closed to clamming as of last Thursday because of PSP. PSP, often called a "red tide," is a marine toxin produced by a certain type of algae that can cause paralysis and even death if consumed in sufficient quantities.
"It's always disappointing to cancel a razor clam dig, and we hate to make people wait for answers on the other beaches," said Dan Ayres, WDFW coastal shellfish manager. "But public safety comes first, which is why we test razor clams before every public dig."
PSP hasn't been a problem on coastal beaches since 1993, but elevated levels turned up in clam samples collected at Long Beach Peninsula sites early last week. A different marine toxin, domoic acid, prompted a season-long closure in 2002-03.
Frank Cox, marine biotoxin coordinator for the Washington Department of Health, said he suspects PSP is moving northward from the Oregon coast, where beaches have been closed to razor clam digging since December.
"There are a lot of uncertainties about how this will affect Washington beaches, which is why we recommend erring on the side of caution," he said.
Cox noted that the PSP toxin cannot be removed by cooking or freezing. Although no human fatalities from PSP have been reported in Washington since 1942, people still get sick every few years - usually after eating toxic shellfish collected from closed beaches, Cox said.
Scientists don't have a great understanding of why algal blooms occasionally create the conditions for excessive PSP. Western Washington is in the midst of one of its warmest Januaries in recorded history, but biologists have noted that warm water doesn't necessarily make a difference in whether PSP occurs at hazardous levels.
Updates on the razor clam dig scheduled for this week north along the coast will be posted on WDFW's Web site at (http://tinyurl.com/yezevzu).
Economic impacts A 2009 study of toxin algae impacts by the University of Washington found that the 2008 razor clam season in Pacific and Grays Harbor counties generated $12.6 million.
"The estimated economic impacts on labor income in the two-county region for closures of a single scheduled opening of a single recreational beach ranges from $110 thousand (at Mocrocks) to $1.20 million (at Long Beach)," according to the study by Prof. Daniel Huppert and graduate student Karen Dyson of UW's School of Marine Affairs.
One of the Peninsula's leading businessmen said the loss of clamming has a noticeable impact on his hiring.
"We treat clam digging as a bonus rather than an expectation," said Tom Downer of Jack's Country Store. "Through the fall and winter months the revenue from clam digging is sufficient for us retain two or three full time permanent positions, complete with health insurance and other benefits. We typically add at least one full time permanent person per month in the period from Presidents Day through June. The loss of clam digging will postpone the commencement of this cyclical hiring by several months."
Downer said the loss of clam digging might also prompt the store to go through summer with fewer people so that employees can rely on steady hours and job security.
Ayers said the WDFW realizes what a big deal this is for coastal communities.
"It has long seemed clear to us that razor clam harvests have become a very important source of income to our coastal communities - especially during the quiet late fall, winter and early spring months. When you drive through Long Beach after an evening razor clam dig on a Friday or Saturday evening and see restaurants busy and motel parking lots full - it's not hard to believe the traffic generated by clam diggers is a boast to businesses."
One Aberdeen restaurant owner told Ayers that the extra traffic into his business after a spring morning razor clam opener meant an additional $8,000 in sales. "I have also heard more from many business owners like the owner of a small motel on the Peninsula who a few years ago told me that the only way he can survive the winter is the business generated by the few days each month the state opens the razor clam fishery," Ayers said.
Responding to the UW study earlier this winter, Ayers said the WDFW was delighted to have solid verification of how much money clamming injects into coastal economies.
"However, amidst all this good news about positive economic impacts on small coastal communities is the very real threat of closures as the result of significant increases in harmful algal species and the uptake of toxins by razor clams," Ayers said in December. "We know that these closures do not last just a few days - there are events that have lasted a year or more. These closures really do impact the citizens who count on these shellfish for a portion of their livelihood. This study gives us new and very specific understanding of how deep that impact is."