Massive Algae Bloom Has Toxic Effect On Coastal Crabbing, Clamming

Jul 2, 2015

Any gardener can tell you it’s been a pretty great growing season so far in the Northwest.

Well, the same is true for the marine algae that produce neurotoxins that make shellfish and crabs dangerous to eat.

The warm sunny waters this spring have contributed to a massive toxic algae bloom that’s shut down some recreational and commercial fisheries on the West Coast.

And it’s costing coastal communities millions.

An unusually quiet summer day at the Port of Willapa Harbor in Tokeland, Washington. Normally, crabbing boats would be going out to set crab pots or returning with a fresh catch. But a toxic algae bloom has closed the crab harvest.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / Earthfix

Dan Ayres is the guy who has to tell crabbers and clammers to stop harvesting. He works for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and he’s been busy lately. Toxin levels in some parts of the southern Washington coast were 10 times above the safety cutoff.

Dan Ayres: I don’t like talking to angry people but it’s much easier to tell them that it’s closed, but you’re safe, than to explain to people why we didn’t close and they lost their father or their son or their child because of the ingestion of some dangerous toxins.

Oregon and Washington have shut down razor clam harvests. The 44 million dollar Dungeness crab fishery in southern Washington has also been closed to protect public health.

No one’s gotten sick yet this season, but there are a lot of people out of work because of the closures, especially in the more rural coastal communities of Grays Harbor and south to the Oregon border.

Ayres estimates the closure of the razor clam harvest has meant roughly 9 million in lost revenue.

Dan Ayres: If you stood on the beach you’re not going to see an effect but if you talk to the community and dig deeper, you’ll see people who certainly have been affected by this.

[coffee maker sound]

Tom Petersen sits in his kitchen on a Tuesday morning. Normally, he’d be out on his crab boat bringing in thousands of dollars worth of Dungeness crab each day. But a few weeks ago, he got some bad news. The crabbing area was closed.

Tom Petersen: "I felt like throwing up. I was sick to my stomach because I have a crew that fishes for me and right now they’re out of work on unemployment. One of them’s trying to make house payments. The other one’s got kids they’re trying to raise and they’re just all standing on the sideline now."

We get in his F350 and head down to the docks near his house. We’re about 40 miles north of the mouth of the Columbia River, on the Washington coast.

[Truck sound]

Tom Petersen: These are all my traps here, sitting along this building. 500 of ‘em sitting here.

[door closes, walking on dock]

Dungeness crab can sell for up to 10 dollars a pound. That can mean more than 20 bucks a crab and with 500 pots sitting high and dry… Tom Petersen is missing out on a lot of money right now.

But he’s not the only one. 6 or 7 empty crab boats dot the harbor. There’s not a soul in sight. This place would usually be bustling.

Tom Petersen: See these smaller boats, they depend on this time of year because they can’t fish the ocean in the winter when the sea is rough. They probably do 80% of their business from here to the end of the season.

As you can see they’re just sitting idle with crab pots on their boats and nothing to do.

The Dungeness crab fishery here in Washington is worth upwards of 80 million dollars a year. Oregon’s is roughly the same size, but so far, toxic algae levels haven’t spiked there like they have here.

Petersen’s been crabbing for 40 years and says he’ll get through this. He’s paid off his boat and saves money every chance he gets, because of something an old crabber once told him.

Tom Petersen: When I first started crabbing I got on with this sea dog and he told me, Tom, he says, “you gotta really work hard. Every day you miss is a day you’re not gonna make up.”

The Department of Health regularly tests shellfish and crabs. When it’s safe, they’ll reopen the area for harvest.

For now, there are a lot of crabbers watching the days tick by, with their crab pots drying in the sun.