Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

PSP toxin pauses Willapa shellfish harvest

WILLAPA BAY — Commercial shellfish harvesters on Willapa Bay are hoping for a quick improvement in conditions after a harmful microorganism in coastal waters caused a surprising spike in the toxin that causes Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP).

The Washington State Department of Health initially decided last week to close Willapa Bay and the entire Washington coast to the recreational harvest of shellfish. This came after shellfish samples were found to be high in the PSP biotoxin sometimes produced by Alexandrium spp., a microscopic marine organism.

On Willapa Bay, commercial harvesting was at first permitted to continue thanks to more careful monitoring, but harvests were paused Friday, May 31, after samples provided by growers to DOH showed an increase in PSP. This is the first commercial closure for PSP on Willapa since 1997.

In Oregon, the PSP outbreak sickened about 20 people, the Oregon Health Authority said last week.

All those involved reported recreationally harvesting mussels May 25-26 at Short Beach near Oceanside in Tillamook County, Hug Point near Arch Cape, and near Seaside in Clatsop County. Some people have been hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

On the Washington coast, “commercial harvest of all species has been shut down in Willapa only,” David Beugli, executive director of Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, said Monday, June 3. “The next step is for samples of harvested product to be sent out to DOH for testing. I was told that a lack of capacity of testing at DOH is a huge constraint currently and the farmers are working to coordinate sampling efforts from the growing areas in Willapa.”

Although there is relatively little recreational/sport harvest of Willapa shellfish this time of year, commercial operations are a major economic factor in Pacific County, employing hundreds directly and indirectly. With no harvest and delivery to processing plants, this outbreak means processors like Pacific Seafood’s large South Bend plant are closed and workers are idled.

“This has a widespread economic impact as we do not have available options for harvesting,” Kathleen Nisbet-Moncy of Nisbet Oyster Co. said June 3. “The DOH lab is over capacity for sampling, which is not helping the situation either. We would like to do lot testing of our products but are unable to do so due to lab capacity. It is a very unfortunate situation that has caught everyone off guard.”

If there is good news, it is that water sampling by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife shows what Beugli terms a “dramatic decline” in the concentration of the PSP-producing organism’s cells in seawater, a process that may be aided by the stormy conditions Sunday, which returned Tuesday.

“Cell counts are dropping. We will have the next round of results [June 4]. There is not an ETA for re-opening at this time,” Nisbet-Moncy said.

The PSP toxin is commonly known as a “red tide.” However, an area may be experiencing a massive bloom even though the water appears clear. A popular misconception surrounds the term “red tide.” Although commonly associated with PSP toxin, algal blooms that color the water red are generally harmless to humans.

Included in the DOH order are clams, oysters, mussels, scallops and other species of mollusks. Crabs are not included in the closure. Closure signs are currently posted at key recreational shellfish harvesting locations, including Nemah Beach, Hawks Point, Willapa Refuge Boat Launch and Nahcotta Beach.

Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning can be fatal. A person cannot determine if the toxin is present by visual inspection. PSP can only be detected by laboratory testing. Illness is caused by eating shellfish contaminated with toxins from the naturally occurring Alexandrium plankton. Biotoxins are not destroyed by cooking or freezing contaminated shellfish. Symptoms of PSP can appear within minutes or hours and usually begin with tingling lips and tongue, moving to the hands and feet, followed by difficulty breathing and paralysis. Anyone experiencing any of these symptoms after consuming shellfish should go to an emergency room immediately or call 911.

Recreational shellfish harvesters are advised to call the DOH Biotoxin Hotline at 1-800- 562-5632 or access the Washington Shellfish Safety Map to check the safety conditions before harvesting shellfish anywhere in Pacific County. For the latest information on regulations and seasons, visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website at or call the Shellfish Rule Change Hotline at 1-866-880-5431.


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