Senate Bill 1550, proposed by State Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, passed unanimously through the House and Senate Tuesday afternoon.

The bill will allow the Oregon Department of Agriculture to shrink the physical size of a crab fishery closure when a crustacean is found to have a domoic acid level that exceeds health standards.

“This involves more testing, so you’d know where the crab came from,” Smith said. “Tests will have the ability to track where the pot was and follow it back so we can do localized closures instead of regional ones.”

Domoic acid accumulates in the viscera, or guts, of crabs and can make people who eat it sick. Its presence kept the Southern Oregon crab season closed for two months, forcing crab fishermen to forgo the season or fish farther north.

The season finally opened — for nine days — when one “hot” crab was found during routine testing. Its discovery resulted in an evisceration order of all crab, adversely affecting the live and whole crab market.

In that state order, the area between Gold Beach south to the Oregon and California border was closed to recreational crab fishing and commercial fishers were required to eviscerate, or gut, all crab landed. As an added protection, a second segment of fishing grounds, from Gold Beach to Cape Blanco, was also under the order to serve as a buffer zone.

Smith and Roblan then decided to craft a bill to more precisely define areas that would be affected in a closure, making it less likely that one “hot” crab would close 100 miles of prime fishing waters.

Under the terms of this bill, Smith explained, if a “hot” crab is found immediately west of, say, Harbor, the state could conduct a test for domoic acid one mile north and south of that spot. If a mile south is found to be safe, but a mile north another “hot” crab is found, the state could keep the Harbor area open and only close the immediate area where domoic acid levels are higher.

For recreational crab fishermen, it also allows them to merely eviscerate, or gut, crab that might be in areas where domoic acid tested high in the guts but not the meat. Until now, if a crab’s guts were high in domoic acid but the meat was not, the recreational fishery would be closed.

“We still want to keep people safe; that’s the top priority,” Smith said. “But there’s an overabundance of caution in existing rules. This gives a little more authority to ODA and ODFW (state fish and wildlife department) to be more diligent in tracking, and gives them the license to narrow it down to that area.”

It will also apply to other fish foods, which have not been affected this season, Smith said.

For example, he added, tests don’t indicated if oysters with E. coli have caught the bacteria from the bay or the processing plant. This bill would help narrow it down.

“We need to have this in place,” Smith said of legislation passed in the short session, which is usually dedicated to cleaning up bills that were approved last year. “The crab season didn’t open until February, and they only got to crab for nine days before they had to shut it down? And then they had live crab in their holds; they were lucky if able to take their crab to Coos Bay to have it processed.”

Domoic acid over time

Chris Kern, an ODFW fish division deputy administrator, said Oregon has experienced “massive harmful algal blooms” that have delayed and closed fisheries and disrupted seasons in the past three years. Those algal blooms produce the biotoxins that accumulate in seafood and are dangerous to humans and other vertebrates, if consumed in too high a concentration.

And Dungeness crab is the state’s most valuable single-species fishery and is only one species that accumulates biotoxins.

Gway Kirchner, a marine fisheries project director with The Nature Conservancy, said in a press release that with consumers becoming more selective about the origin of the food they eat, ensuring seafood is safe is paramount.

“They want assurance that the industry they support is sustainable and of the highest quality,” Kirchner said. “ They want to connect with the story of how their fish was caught and by whom. They also want to be sure their fish is safe to eat. This has become especially important in the last few years as domoic acid has impacted the Dungeness crab fishery.”