Like messages in bottles, the evidence of something very wrong in the Pacific Ocean has been mounting all year on California’s shores.
Ordinary storms have been whipped into monsters like last week’s Hurricane Patricia. Schools of tropical sunfish have shown up on the Alaskan coast, and red crabs from Baja have carpeted beaches as far north as Monterey County.
Now, amid record high water temperatures in the Pacific, a record algal bloom is floating like a heat rash along the West Coast from Santa Barbara to Seattle, generating record concentrations of the neurotoxin domoic acid. Naturally secreted by a type of algae called pseudo-nitzschia, the acid buildup has poisoned sea lions by the hundreds in Sausalito and is suspected in the deaths of whales in the Gulf of Alaska.
This week, the concern moved even closer to home for Californians as state health officials issued an astonishing warning: Crabs caught along the West Coast have been rendered too poisonous to consume.
Dungeness crab season, which was to have opened recreationally on Saturday and on Nov. 15 for commercial crabbers, was delayed Thursday by the California Fish and Game Commission until further notice, potentially disastrous news. West Coast crabbing generated $70 million for commercial fishermen last year.
This is when crabbers typically earn the bulk of their income, hauling in the fresh shellfish that have been a December tradition at Bay Area restaurants and Northern California holiday tables for generations. But safety first: Mild seafood poisoning can sicken a human for days with abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea; in its severe form, it can cause brain damage and kill.
This week’s warm water alarm comes as top state officials prepare for the United Nations climate summit in Paris starting Nov. 30. It will add urgency; El Niño partly explains the freak warming, but part is clearly human-caused climate change.
Here, however, it feels eerily like the beginning of the end of an era. For all of time, it seems, the Pacific Ocean has been there for us; an immense, blue, wild neighbor, alive and breathing. Now, as global warming leaves its mark on everything from the ice at our poles to the food on our New Year’s Day tables, there is no ignoring the message it’s sending, by land, by air and now by sea.