Washington’s razor clam season shut down by hazardous algal blooms

For thousands in the state, razor clamming represents culture and heritage. But state and tribal agencies are trying to protect people from harmful toxins.

razor clams beach

Hazardous algal blooms have prompted the closing of the clamming season. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Andi Day was just 6 years old when someone snapped a photo of her holding a lantern against the inky night as her grandfather knelt to dig out a razor clam on a sandy Washington beach. He had picked her up after school so she was still in her dress uniform, bundled in a warm winter coat to guard against the cold breeze.

For Day and thousands of other Washingtonians, razor clamming isn't just a fun weekend activity — it's their culture and their heritage. It even predates the arrival of European settlers. Native communities have been harvesting clams and crabs on these same beaches since time immemorial. 

"I think one of my most cherished possessions actually is a clam gun that my grandfather made for my grandmother," says Day, now 53. "It's like this family heirloom. And it's just been handed down and we repair it and keep using it."

Each season, diggers wait in anticipation for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife managers to count the number of clams on the beach. This determines how many are available for harvest and, ultimately, how many digs will be scheduled at each beach. Last year, diggers were thrilled when technicians counted the densest numbers of razor clams ever recorded, says Dan Ayres, the coastal shellfish manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. After a long spring and summer cooped up by the pandemic, people were ready to get out for this socially distanced family activity. Instead, they received a slap in the face: The season was quickly shut down  after roughly a month and a half because of unsafe levels of toxins in the clams from a harmful algal bloom on the Pacific coast.

The culprit toxin was domoic acid, which causes amnesic shellfish poisoning. It's a neurotoxin that causes everything from memory loss to brain damage, and it can be fatal. There is no known antidote. It's produced through a dominolike chain of events: Warm water offshore causes a type of microscopic marine diatom called Pseudo-nitzschia to bloom. It then wafts silently over clam beds, delivering doses of domoic acid into the water. The clams filter it out of the water while feeding and store it in their bodies. Other marine organisms, including Dungeness crabs, then eat the clams, making the crabs toxic, too. (Because neither crabs nor clams have central nervous systems, they can’t be harmed by domoic acid.) 

To protect people from the toxins, scientists and state and tribal agencies developed a robust monitoring and alert program. But even with it in place, scientists can't change the domoic acid in the water. They can only warn people of its presence and, in the case of the state, close down the season until it's safe. And with offshore water temperatures slowly ticking upwards, scientists say this cascade of events is likely to become more frequent in the future. 

The stakes are high. According to one 2010 study, closing all of Washington's razor clam beaches for a year affects 339 full-time jobs and causes coastal communities to lose $10.6 million in income. Then there's the Dungeness crab fishery, a $20 million industry that's the West Coast's largest fishery. It also bears huge cultural significance.

"When crab harvest occurs in La Push, when the boats come in, the people come out," sajc Jennifer Hagen, a marine biologist and marine policy adviser to the Quileute Tribe. "It's 'share with the community time.' It's not just 'sell it to market,' but they also share it, and that's really important to the La Push community." 

There are many different ways to test for the threat at various points along the toxin's journey from offshore upwellings to clam tissue. Some of this testing requires special equipment and training or collection from remote locations. That's why a coalition of scientists from tribal, state and federal governments partnered up to form the Olympic Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Network to share resources and information to keep people safe. 

Monitoring for harmful algal blooms

Tracking the threat of domoic acid to people requires a three-pronged approach. It starts a dozen or so miles offshore, where the Pseudo-nitzschia bloom during ocean upwelling, a natural flow of water from the cold ocean floor up to the warm surface waters. By catching the Pseudo-nitzschia out here, well before it's onshore, scientists can get an early warning that it's coming — similar to weather forecasters who track storm fronts from far away. 

But no one regularly monitors the water out there, says Vera Trainer, a supervisory oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who's working on the problem. Rather, research vessels sample the water opportunistically, when they happen to be in the area for other work. Trainer hopes to change that, though. NOAA is currently developing a minilab device that can be left out at a mooring site 13 miles off the coast of La Push to test for the presence of Pseudo-nitzschia and beam back the results to onshore scientists. Researchers are also working on sailboat drones that can zoom out to detected upwelling zones, scoop up sample, and ferry them back to scientists waiting on shore. 

The next windows of opportunity are sampling water directly over the clam beds and testing the clams themselves. Currently, coastal tribes collectively do about 60% of the monitoring on the coast, says Hagen. Scientists look for Pseudo-nitzschia and domoic acid in the water, but even then, it's tricky: Some species of Pseudo-nitzschia produce domoic acid only intermittently, and distinguishing hazardous species from benign ones is difficult. Even then, if water tests come back positive for domoic acid, it can take up to a week or two before it shows up in clam tissue, too, says Ayres, the shellfish manager with the Department of  Fish and Wildlife.

Testing clam tissue is the final determination of whether clams are safe to eat or not. For nontribal harvest, the results will determine whether public digging can happen or will be canceled. To do this, technicians dig up a set of 12 clams from across each beach and shuttle them to the state Department of Health, which oversees testing of the clams. If the researchers detect more than 20 parts per million of domoic acid in the clams, the dig is canceled at the beach where they tested positive. A dig can’t be scheduled again until two successive clean samples come in over a four-week period. For tribal harvests, biologists can only make recommendations for tribal members not to dig, since prohibiting harvests would impose on treaty rights, says Hagen.

With all of these compounding factors, making management decisions is tough. That's especially true if a water sample comes back positive for domoic acid, but lab results are still pending for clam tissue. For resource managers, it's a bit like playing Russian roulette: Will keeping the dig open preserve vital economic activity and cultural traditions, or will people get sick or even die? The Olympic Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Network stitches together all of the data that its partners collect into easy-to-read bulletins, but even then, making a green light/red light choice sometimes isn’t clear. 

Ayres faced such a gut-wrenching decision when the razor clam season briefly opened in October. The beaches were set to open at 11:12 pm, but that day a water sample came back that was high in domoic acid. Ayres wrung his hands and decided to close the dig out of an abundance of caution. 

Officials set up roadblocks and turned people away, but 800 people were still gearing up on the beach to go clamming. "I was out there with my crew, and we have people running around, law enforcement officers were chasing people off — and in my mind, I'm thinking 'I sure hope this is necessary;' " says Ayres. The gamble paid off. "When the test came back for clams that were dug that night, they were high.” 

“And then the clam levels just got higher and higher and higher," he says.

Dealing with domoic acid

Part of what makes managing a domoic acid closure hard is that there's no way to tell when the danger will subside. Razor clams tend to store domoic acid in their fatty tissues — the same parts that make them so tasty. Domoic acid levels can decline on their own, making it mostly a waiting game. Oftentimes, says Ayres, clams hang on to the domoic acid until they spawn in the spring and exhaust their storage tissues, effectively flushing out the toxin. But by then, they've transformed into floppy pancakes that aren't worth eating. 

Dungeness crabs, on the other hand, accumulate domoic acid in their hepatopancreas (the crab butter in the body cavity, which some people eat). The meaty legs can still be safely eaten, however, as long as they're first eviscerated and cleaned by commercial fishermen, thereby guaranteeing safety for consumption. Even so, the Quinault Nation voluntarily recalled nearly 29 tons of crab earlier this year when it turned out that they were contaminated with domoic acid. 

But Ayres says there's a problem with the clean-and-sell fix for domoic acid present in the state’s commercial Dungeness crab catch. "We discovered that none of us really had clear authority to require that," says Ayres. "And that's one way to keep that fishery going in the light of these blooms." 

Now, the crabbing industry has teamed up with state attorneys to draft a new bit of legislation that expands Department of Health authority to cover Dungeness crabs in the same way it currently does razor clams. It's currently proceeding through the Washington Legislature as House Bill 1508, with a public hearing slated April 1 in the state Senate. Ayres says the bill has faced no opposition so far, likely paving the way for its passage, which can’t come soon enough: "One of the rationales behind this bill is that we're expecting that we're gonna have to do this more often," says Ayres. 

‘The blooms aren’t going to go away’

So far this season, harvesting of razor clams has been closed since October. The Department of Fish and Wildlife posts the most recent domoic acid samples online, but as of this writing, the levels still aren't showing any signs of letting up. With the spawning season approaching, the window for any harvest opportunity at all is rapidly closing. 

This season might be something of a glimpse into our future. Given our changing climate, the old days of weekly digs along the entire coast is likely a thing of the past. This isn't the scenario that anyone wanted, but still, scientists are hopeful that we can find workarounds to keep the harvests going.  

"The blooms aren't going to go away. We can't go out and just spray stuff on them," says NOAA's Trainer. Instead, as new technologies come online and the Olympic Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Network partnership work continues to develop, she's hopeful that scientists can give managers longer-range and more detailed forecasts about which beaches are safe. Rather than imposing blanket closures, managers may be able to further fine-tune opportunities for safe digs with surgical precision. 

"I am such a strong proponent of information — science is powerful," says Trainer. "And the more we know, I think the more we're going to be able to really target the harvesting periods to those times that are safe."

That means dig opportunities may become a bit more chaotic. Aspiring clammers might book a motel in Long Beach, for example, only to learn that they'll need to drive a couple hours to Mocrocks Beach, where safe samplings are reported. Or a dig might open midweek on Kalaloch Beach on short notice, in anticipation of a harmful algal bloom offshore that has yet to make clams unsafe to eat but will in the near future. "I think there's hope for the future," says Trainer.

Things are more difficult for tribes who have defined treaty harvest areas, says Hagen. The Quileute Tribe has treaty harvest rights to an area between the Queets River and Cape Alava. For them, it isn't just a simple matter of picking up and driving a couple hours north or south. 

"The treaty is the law — this is the supreme law of the land. So the state and feds can come up with all kinds of things. It doesn't change the treaty right," Hagen says. "Whether you're talking about elk or crab, you know, it's very much part of their community and their communication with each other and their celebrations. And so that part of it is kind of scary, too — not just the toxin aspect, but the cultural aspect of changes."