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Shell games: Crabbing season on again

Live Dungeness crab is back on the menu for sport and commercial fishermen along Oregon’s south coast after tests showed domoic acid levels are back below health thresholds, but crab lovers are still left wondering whether this marks the end of an unhealthy offshore cycle or just another public-health blip.

The Oregon Department of Agriculture restored sport crabbing south of Cape Blanco Thursday after two consecutive weekly samples showed domoic acid levels of Dungeness sampled out of Port Orford were well below unsafe levels.

The designation also allows south coast commercial crabbers to sell their Dungeness live instead of eviscerated to remove crab guts or “butter,” which contains the highest concentrations of domoic acid, as required since the late-opening season began Feb. 1.

The last time a domoic-acid closure hit the south coast, last fall, it reopened Jan. 31 but lasted just two weeks before levels spiked in Dungeness off Port Orford, records show.

The algae that produces the toxins has a pattern on the West Coast of hanging around for three to five years before dissipating, a cycle linked largely to changing weather patterns, health experts say.

The current trend of domoic acid outbreaks began in August of 2014.

“That’s when it came and didn’t leave,” said Judy Dowell, who monitors shellfish at the Oregon Department of Agriculture food-safety program in Salem.

“Our hope is that it follows the previous patterns, and this is the year that the majority of it goes away,” Dowell said. “It should significantly diminish and be significantly less of a problem, certainly for the crabbing industry and recreational crabbers.”

However, domoic acid levels remain high in razor clams off Port Orford. Razor clams are a key part of the Dungeness diet and a source for domoic acid spikes in crabs.

The next round of Dungeness tests off Oregon will be conducted during the week of April 8.

“It’s up to Mother Nature, of course, but we might be on a path here to being able to harvest without evisceration, for a while anyway,” said Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.

During the recent closure, the commercial industry was allowed to sell eviscerated crab because that’s where the domoic acid builds up. The end of the closure allows for the sale of live crab at higher profits for crabbers, Link said.

That’s why health officials recommend always eviscerating all crab before cooking. When whole crab are cooked in liquid, domoic acid may leach into the liquid.

Domoic acid can cause minor to severe illness and even death in humans. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea. More severe cases can result in memory loss and death.

Already this year’s Oregon fleet of more than 400 crab boats have landed 17 million pounds of Dungeness, generating $65 million to Oregon fishermen, making it by far Oregon’s most lucrative ocean fishery, according to the commission.

Of that, south coast crabbers have landed 1.5 million pounds of Dungeness for about $5.5 million since their eviscerated season opened Feb. 1, commission statistics show.

The season goes until June 15 before weekly poundage quotas kick in and severely slow down commercial interest.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Los Angeles Times file photoDungeness crab is unloaded in San Francisco in early 2016.