In normal times, this year’s disastrous Dungeness crab season would be big news beyond the coast. Even in this abnormal year, it’s time for elected officials and agencies to pay closer attention to how local families are being hurt by lack of crabbing.
Typical measures of economic pain fail to capture the extent of damage. Last week it was wrenching to see Pacific County with the worst joblessness in Washington state. But the reported rate of nearly 11% was largely pinned on the pandemic-struck hospitality industry. Based on statistical modeling, county-level job reports often fall short in revealing exactly what’s going on — and that is surely true of crabbing.
The most immediate problem for both commercial crabbing and recreational clamming is the marine toxin domoic acid, created by ocean microorganisms run amok. Federal rules ban crab harvests when the toxin rises above 30 parts per million in the yellowish viscera — also sometimes called crab butter — that some people eat. Some crab sampled off Long Beach have been unsafe, leading to what is now the longest-ever delay in starting the season. (Meanwhile, from the central Oregon coast south into California, toxin levels have been acceptable and crabbing is ongoing.)
The local delay is likely to continue. Peninsula crab brought up Jan. 28 still had too much toxin, according to results obtained Feb. 1. This will probably push the season start beyond the middle of the month, well past the important Chinese New Year market.
Ordinarily, crab season is winding down by now. More often than not, boats dump pots before Christmas and get down to some of the toughest work imaginable. Most crab are hauled up in the first six to eight weeks. With some exceptions, in February boat skippers and crews start catching up on sleep, secure in the knowledge that bank accounts have been replenished. Some would have already headed north to fish in Alaska — an option made difficult this year by covid-safety precautions.
Not only have local crabbers missed out on holiday sales while their West Coast competitors profit, but reports suggest crab are relatively scarce in south Pacific County waters this year. Crab abundance rises and falls on multi-year cycles, so this may simply be a matter of more bad luck piled on top of the toxin. While the toxin itself isn’t known to harm crab or clams, it’s also possible that today’s warmer and slightly more acidic ocean both encourages toxin production and hurts crab survival.
To their credit, the Washington departments of Fish and Wildlife and Health have been working with the industry to try to salvage some part of this season. “We plan to meet with our WDFW Coastal Crab Industry Advisory Board on Wednesday afternoon [Feb. 3] to discuss next steps,” Coast Shellfish Manager Dan Ayres said. “That could include waiting to do additional testing, or opening under an evisceration order.” Agency attorneys are working on the latter option, which would allow boats to sell crab from which the digestive tract has been removed.
Starting in 2015 with the intense marine heat wave known as the Blob, crabbing has become more prone to problems. These heat waves are expected to become common. This makes it essential that we work to better understand toxic algal blooms and learn how to predict, control and work around them. We must have dependable legislative support for such efforts.
Crab management is bound to evolve into a more complicated task, one that calls for better coordination of tribal, commercial and recreational harvests. In a state where fishery commissioners appointed by urban-beholden governors clearly favor sport allocations, it’s essential that the importance of commercial crabbing to the coast economy be clearly understood and protected.
There are a lot of needy folks this year. That creates a risk that crab-dependent families may be overlooked. This fishery is a disaster and should be treated as an emergency. Although state and federal resources are already stretched tight, specific aid ought to be designated to help ensure crab boats, processors and all they employ survive to see another season.