A long stretch of California’s North Coast has been shut down for commercial crab fishing because of health concerns, tightening supplies of Dungeness crab just as the holiday season gets underway.
While the closure isn’t expected to be as calamitous as last year, when California’s Dungeness crab season was severely disrupted for months, it is expected to affect price. Raley’s said consumers can expect to pay more for the winter delicacy, which is a staple of holiday dinners and wintertime crab-feed fundraisers for nonprofits.
“The supply is going to be a little tight,” said Koen Vermeylen, director of meat and seafood at the West Sacramento grocery chain. “You’re not going to see the $3.99 (a pound) crab, the $4.99 sales.”
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife on Wednesday announced the indefinite closure of a 120-mile coastal stretch that was scheduled to open Dec. 1. The stretch runs from Point Reyes to Humboldt Bay. The department announced the closure after receiving warnings from the state Department of Public Health and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. The closed portion won’t open until testing shows the crabs are safe to eat.
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The problem is an algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean that causes unsafe levels of a toxin called domoic acid. The toxin can cause vomiting, diarrhea, memory loss, coma and death.
A similar outbreak occurred a year ago and wiped out a significant portion of Dungeness crab supplies up and down the West Coast for about a month. Grocers eventually were able to import crab from Oregon and Washington, but most of the California coast remained off limits until March. State officials said the outbreak cost California fisherman tens of millions of dollars.
This year it appeared the crab season would proceed without problems. On Nov. 2 the state pronounced the California coast open for business. But difficulties popped up almost right away. A week later the state, citing the presence of domoic acid, announced it was closing two stretches of the coast: between Point Reyes and the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, and the rock crab fishery north of Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. This week’s announcement spreads the closure to a wider swath of the coast.
“We started off with a bang,” Vermeylen said. “We were all excited.”
Dave Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he believes the disruptions will be modest compared to last year’s. “There’s not nearly as many (tainted crabs) as there were last year,” said Bitts, a veteran crab and salmon fisherman in Eureka. “It’s much more localized.”
He said the closure is frustrating but understandable. “The last thing we want anyone to do is get sick from eating a crab,” he said.