A massive coastal algae bloom fueled by El Niño has prompted a warning of potentially fatal toxins in California crab meat and delayed the start of Dungeness crab-fishing season indefinitely.
An advisory this week from the state Department of Public Health creates considerable anxiety around one of Northern California’s favorite cold-weather delicacies, as well as a commercial fishing industry already staggered by the state’s historic drought.
Public health officials said Wednesday the crab meat now being sold in restaurants and supermarkets should be safe. “There’s a lot of areas around the country, both East and West Coast, that you can get crab from,” said Patrick Kennelly, chief of the foods-safety section at the state Department of Public Health. “They may be sourcing from areas outside of the current area of concern. ... If they can’t tell you where it came from, then you probably want to avoid it, just out of an abundance of caution.”
The California Fish and Game Commission voted 3-0 at an emergency meeting Thursday to delay the opening of the recreational crabbing seasons, based on a recommendation from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The commission also voted to shut down recreational rock crab fishing, which is supposed to be open year-round. The Department of Fish and Wildlife is expected in the next couple of days to also delay the start of the commercial Dungeness crabbing season.
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“Our mission is to keep fishing opportunities open,” said Jordan Traverso, deputy director at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “This is not our line of work, to close or delay (fishing seasons). But where the decisions are coming from is the risk to public health.”
The culprit is unsafe levels of a toxin called domoic acid in the Pacific Ocean. The toxin is spread through single-celled algae that have appeared in a massive, continuous bloom along the entire Pacific Coast, clear to Alaska.
The unprecedented size of the bloom is linked to the extremely strong El Niño phenomenon, which has raised the water temperatures in the Pacific by up to 9 degrees along portions of the California coast, said Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The algae conditions have prompted public health warnings this year about toxins in a range of seafood, including certain anchovies, mussels and sardines on California’s Central Coast, and a variety of shellfish in Oregon and Washington. As for crab, the current advisories are limited to California and southern Oregon.
Kudela said the blooms also were present last year.
“Historically, we see blooms during and after the El Niño,” Kudela said. “So it’s quite possible that next year will be another big bloom year and possibly just as toxic or more toxic. So, at that point, three years in a row, it starts to become the new normal.”
Saturday is the scheduled opening day for recreational crabbing season along much of California’s coast. The commercial season is scheduled to begin Nov. 15. Fisheries officials said the proposed delays would have widespread impact, stretching from the Oregon border to southern Santa Barbara County.
On Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health issued a health advisory urging the public to avoid eating rock and Dungeness crab after high levels of domoic acid were detected in the meat and viscera, commonly referred to as “crab butter.” Officials said the toxins “pose a significant risk to the public if they are consumed.”
“The conditions that support the growth of this plant are impossible to predict, and it is unknown when the levels found in crab will subside,” health officials said in a statement. “The health advisory will be lifted once the levels are no longer above acceptable levels.”
The potent neurotoxins can accumulate in shellfish and other invertebrates and fish that feed on creatures that eat the algae.
Symptoms of domoic acid poisoning can occur within 30 minutes of eating toxic seafood. Even mild cases are exceedingly unpleasant, with symptoms that can include vomiting, diarrhea, headache and dizziness. Severe poisoning can lead to permanent short-term memory loss, seizures, cardiac arrest, coma or even death.
“This particular toxin is something we seriously do not want to mess with,” said Dave Bitts, a North Coast fisherman and president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. He called on health agencies “to set a high standard” before declaring the crabs safe to eat.
Kennelly said public health officials have monitored the algae situation for months. Over the summer, the department issued advisories on some but not all harvests of mussels, clams, anchovies, sardines and crabs caught in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties. The advisories mostly were limited to seafood caught recreationally.
“We work with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to increase monitoring before crab season opens to make sure we don’t have any issues there,” Kennelly said. “Unfortunately, this year we’re seeing increased levels in crabs all along the coastline.”
Oregon and Washington also have been wrestling with the problem. Jessica Sall, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said fisheries officials there have issued a crab advisory for the southern part of Oregon’s coast from just below Coos Bay to the California border.
The Oregon advisory urges recreational crabbers to pull the guts completely out of the crab before cooking. She said testing has shown that toxins along that section of the Oregon coast are concentrated in the crab’s internal organs, and aren’t potent enough to make the bodies, legs and claws toxic.
Sall said the state already closed Oregon’s razor clamming season because of high domoic acid levels. The same is true in Washington, said Dan Ayres, a shellfish biologist at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In addition, Ayres said Washington officials closed “a significant portion of our coast” to crab fishing in June because of the algae issue. The crab season is supposed to reopen Dec. 1, but he said scientists will test for algae this month to make sure the crabs are safe to eat.
Fresh crab is a significant part of the Northern California experience. Its succulent white meat is the centerpiece for hundreds of community fundraisers. Many families incorporate Dungeness crab into their holiday dinners.
“Growing up on the West Coast, it’s a tradition,” said Henry Ichinose, owner of ABS Seafood, a fish wholesaler on Pier 45 in San Francisco.
He said the start of crab season has been postponed in years past, when biologists raised concerns that the breeding season had been delayed or wasn’t productive enough. But in his two decades in the fishing industry, Ichinose said this is the first postponement related to toxins in California crabs.
Tim Sloane, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the news deals another blow to an industry struggling with the drought, which restricted salmon harvests this year. Fisheries officials say they also may need to restrict California’s Chinook salmon fishing season next year due to poor survival rates for juvenile fish.
“It’s like our fisheries are going down one by one,” Sloane said. “The milk stool is slowly falling out beneath us.”
El Niño’s role in the algae bloom is a matter of considerable irony. This winter’s El Niño storms are supposed to help ease problems caused by the drought.
California’s Dungeness crab harvest was worth $59 million in the 2013-14 season, the latest data available, according to the state. Industry officials said about 500 commercial boats are usually out on the ocean, and the crab business extends to processors, dockworkers, truckers and others.
“It’s a lot of people, and it feeds a lot of mouths,” said Jim Anderson, a crab fisherman in Half Moon Bay. “We didn’t have much of a salmon season this year, and a lot of the guys were counting on the crab season.”
The timing couldn’t be worse, with Thanksgiving and Christmas approaching, said gourmet grocer Darrell Corti, of Sacramento’s Corti Bros. supermarket. He said Corti Bros. had crab for sale last week, but it came from farther north.
“You can’t imagine what would happen at Christmastime if we didn’t have crab to make cioppino or crab at Christmas Eve,” Corti said.
Raley’s said its crabs were frozen and packaged well before the problem materialized and are safe. “Our quality-assurance team has been reviewing everything and is confident,” said Chelsea Minor, spokeswoman for the West Sacramento grocery chain.
She said if the California season is delayed for too long, Raley’s would go elsewhere for its crabs – “further north, where the water is colder.”
The news was a shocker in the nonprofit community, where crab feed fundraisers are a staple of late fall and winter. Renee Friedrich, president of the Sacramento Junior League, said the league’s annual event in February generates one-third of its fundraising.
“For our club, and for most charities, it represents a lot of funds,” said General Davie, who’s organizing a crab feed in January for the Carmichael Kiwanis Club. Last year’s feed raised $22,000 after expenses.