- Associated Press - Thursday, November 26, 2015

MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) - The levels of harmful acid that closed South Coast crab fisheries are now falling, and crabbers could return within weeks, authorities said.

All eyes are on Monday’s results of Dungeness samples taken last weekend for Brookings and Port Orford to see whether the levels of domoic acid have dropped below health-alert levels, as they did in Coos and Winchester bays, or remain potentially unhealthy, as ports in Northern California are seeing.

If the results are good, sport-crabbers could be back on South Coast bays in less than two weeks, and Oregon’s commercial crabbing fleet could set out Dec. 15, the Medford Mail Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1LCm7Rg).

“That’s what everyone’s hoping for,” said Matt Hunter, the shellfish project leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Astoria. “Once we get the Port Orford and Brookings samples next week, that will set in stone what we’re looking at. But without those results, all bets could be off really quickly.”

Domoic acid is a toxin produced by algae and has been found at high levels in razor clams along the Oregon Coast this year. Dungeness crabs collect the acid by eating razor clams.

Domoic acid, or amnesic shellfish toxin, can cause minor to severe illness and even death, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Severe poisoning can result in dizziness, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea, the agency said. More severe cases can result in memory loss and death. The toxins cannot be removed by cooking or freezing the crabs.

More crab samples for testing are planned statewide this weekend. With two full favorable tests needed at least a week apart to lift the closure, the earliest the South Coast recreational crabbing season could resume bay crabbing appears to be the week of Dec. 7, Hunter said.

Sport crabbing in the area has been closed since Nov. 13, and the commercial season set to start Dec. 1 already has been delayed.

Typically, the bays are open year-round. The ocean opens to sport crabbers in December after a 45-day closure while the crabs regrow after molting.

The commercial fleet typically needs about an extra week to get an initial landing price set, get their boats going and set their pots before they start pulling them on opening day. “Unofficially, everyone’s eyeing Dec. 15,” said Rod Moore, senior policy adviser for the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

Oregon crab lovers, who often tap Dungeness for Christmas and other holiday-time feasts, have grown accustomed to late starts to the commercial season while they await meat levels to meet minimum thresholds to guarantee excellent taste and meat content.

The season didn’t begin until Dec. 15 in 2013, and slow meat-recovery rates triggered a coastwide delay until Dec. 31 in 2012. In 2011, the Oregon Coast from the Columbia River south to Gold Beach opened Dec. 15, but the south coast ports of Gold Beach and Brookings did not open that year until Jan. 15.

Ironically, this year’s meat-fill levels are excellent, Hunter said.

In fact, the meat-fill levels could be a reason the domoic levels of Oregon Dungeness are dropping, Hunter said.

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Information from: Mail Tribune, https://www.mailtribune.com/

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