Expect to see deals on frozen Dungeness crab at local grocery stores this week, as freezers are emptied in anticipation of Oregon and Washington reopening a commercial crabbing season that had been closed for a month because of toxins in crab meat.
California’s crab season, meanwhile, will remain closed, still blighted by a massive coastal algae bloom that has infected crabs along the Pacific shoreline with a toxin that is potentially fatal in humans.
But state health officials say they’re cautiously optimistic. The toxicity levels appear to be subsiding in the crabs they’re testing at various points along the California coast.
“It’s getting closer. It’s trending positively,” said Orville Thomas, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health.
Most of the West Coast crab fishery, from Santa Barbara County to British Columbia, has been closed to crab fishing since November after health officials detected unsafe levels of domoic acid during routine sampling of crab meat. The toxin is a byproduct of an algae bloom off the coast that spread as far north as Alaska in water warmed by the El Niño weather pattern. The potent neurotoxins can accumulate in shellfish and other invertebrates and fish that feed on creatures that eat the algae.
The toxin scare has hurt the commercial fishing fleet and made it almost impossible to find fresh crab, one of Northern California’s favorite cold-weather delicacies. Fresh crab is a staple of holiday feasts in the Sacramento region, not to mention the fundraiser dinners put on by a host of nonprofit groups.
“It’s almost like the brisket in Texas,” said Koen Vermeylen, director of meat and seafood for West Sacramento-based Raley’s supermarkets. “Here, we have our Dungeness crab.”
Crab fishing is also a major industry along the West Coast. Last year’s catch was estimated at $170 million, $60 million of which was in California.
Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said the good news is that the toxins have subsided off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Health officials have given the all-clear for fishermen to drop their crab-catching traps on New Year’s Day. Harvest, he said, can begin Jan. 4. That means fresh crab will soon be on its way to California.
“Californians sure love their crab,” he said. “We’ll be happy to get some on their plates.”
Even during the closure, local markets have offered some previously frozen crab. Vermeylen said that in anticipation of a fresh supply, Raley’s will have frozen Dungeness crab on sale for $5.99 a pound in time for the New Year’s holiday. He said the company typically sells around 170,000 pounds of crab a year – most during the winter holidays – but that sales have fallen this season.
“Next week, we should be in better shape,” Vermeylen said.
That’s small comfort for fishermen along California’s coast.
Jon Yokomizo, captain of the Sea Wolf, a 50-foot recreational fishing boat based out of Emeryville, said he has spent the season regularly checking the health department’s website for updates on its toxin monitoring. He’s also watching the water temperature off the coast in hopes that ocean currents will eventually chill and flush out the toxic algae.
Normally, he said, ocean temperatures are as low as 48 degrees this time of year, but temperatures have hovered closer to 60. In a typical year, he said, he would be ferrying up to 35 clients a day out to catch rockfish, followed by some crabbing.
“This year, there’s no interest at all,” Yokomizo said. “On the days we do run, our customer count is a third to half of normal.”
He’s struggling, but he said he’s not nearly as bad off as the commercial fishermen who were banking on a successful crab season to offset the losses from a salmon fishing season crippled by drought. “There’s going to be guys losing boats, losing houses,” he said. ‘It’s going to be pretty traumatic to a lot of guys.”
Four Democratic members of Congress with districts along California’s coast sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown after the crab season was delayed, urging him to consider asking for federal disaster relief funds for the fishing industry if the closure was prolonged.
On Dec. 15, Brown’s natural resources secretary, John Laird, responded with a letter saying the state is “closely monitoring the situation” and likely would seek federal funds should the season remain closed.