Tourism and its cousin — retirement living — are often seen as the centerpiece of the coastal economy. They do play a massive role in the Columbia-Pacific region’s financial wellbeing. In the mid-winter, however, crabbing pumps millions into the pockets of local fishermen — money that circulates through every type of business in our counties.
A delay in the start of Dungeness crab season was a drag on holiday-season spending. It’s not unusual for crabbing to be set back two or three weeks beyond its traditional Dec. 1 start date, but this season’s 35-day delay meant local crabbers were unable to capitalize on Christmas demand. Paychecks for boat owners and crews similarly were long delayed, suppressing enthusiasm for December spending. In some cases, this lack of cash continues, as processors don’t immediately pay for deliveries — in effect borrowing from already cash-strapped fishermen.
This winter, the absence of razor clamming also was a tremendous blow to the economy in Pacific County, subtracting as much as $3 million in consumer spending from retailers, restaurants, gasoline stations and others. In turn, this means business owners and employees didn’t have as much money to shop with at Christmastime at regional retail magnets like Warrenton, Astoria and Seaside. (The clam closure also applied to Clatsop County, but Oregon’s shellfish policies mean clamming provides less of a winter economic boost.)
It is a tribute to our region’s economic diversification that the temporary loss of crabbing and clamming were not more destructive. Two decades ago, a lengthy crab closure was highly traumatic, virtually putting many crab-industry families on the charity soup line. This season’s pain appeared more manageable.
The fact that both these shellfish species were impacted by the phenomenon of an algal bloom containing a potent marine toxin is highly worrisome. It did not affect Willapa Bay’s economically vital oyster and hard-shell clam businesses, but there’s nothing to say that it won’t in some future year. For a time in 2015, Willapa Bay crab were off limits to harvest because the toxin. Traces of the toxin were even found in ocean fin-fish.
Thorough research of toxic algal blooms, timely monitoring of ocean conditions and responsive fishery management are all becoming increasingly important in light of a Pacific Ocean that has warmed in recent years, with corresponding changes in its chemistry. Related low-oxygen dead zones off the Oregon coast reached a peak in 2006, but have spread to Washington and Oregon.
At the state level, these threats warrant increases in funding for marine biological staffing in fish and wildlife departments. Other responses will have to include adjusting seasons to take maximum advantage of times when harmful algae aren’t present. The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife made a move in this direction by scheduling an uninterrupted eight days of clam digging as soon as toxin tests permitted. They should continue this year to squeeze in as much clamming as possible before summer. An increase in the daily clam limit could also be a good idea. A harvest of more than 1.7 million clams is authorized for the 2015-16 season, and a 25-clam limit or even 35 could be accommodated within this total in the four or five months that remain in the season.
Smart adaptations can help ensure shellfish remain a key part of our economy. Proactive citizens will insist that lawmakers and agencies adjust to these changing times for the Pacific Ocean and the communities that rely upon it.