Crab season delayed due to dangerous neurotoxin levels

Friday, November 6, 2015
Crab season delayed due to dangerous neurotoxin levels
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California officials delayed the Dungeness crab season just days after warning of dangerous levels of a neurotoxin linked to a massive algae bloom off the West Coast that could make people sick.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KGO) -- California officials are delaying the Dungeness crab season and closing the rock crab fishery just days after warning of dangerous levels of a neurotoxin linked to a massive algae bloom off the West Coast.

The California Fish and Game Commission Thursday voted 3-0 in favor of an emergency rulemaking to prohibit recreational take and possession of Dungeness crab and all rock crab from ocean waters, including bays and estuaries, north of the Ventura/Santa Barbara county line.

Closure of the fisheries shall remain in effect until the Director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), in consultation with the Director of the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), determines that domoic acid levels no longer pose a significant risk to public health and no longer recommends the fisheries be closed.

The Commission also directed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to maintain a list of closed ocean waters of the state and update that list on Wednesday of each week by 1 p.m.

The recreational Dungeness crab season was scheduled to start Saturday, Nov. 7.

CDPH, in conjunction with CDFW, has been actively testing crabs since early September and results from the most recent tests showed that the health risk to humans is significant. CDPH issued a health advisory on Tuesday. OEHHA followed that with a recommendation for delays and closures.

CDFW will continue to coordinate with CDPH and OEHHA to test domoic acid levels in crab along the coast to determine when the fisheries can safely be opened.

Candy Coursey traveled all the way from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Scoma's restaurant on Fisherman's Wharf for crab. "Well it actually has kind of a mellow, sweet taste to it," she said.

She described Dungeness crab that was imported from Washington State and likely to remain being imported from there until further notice. "We actually don't change the market price. We absorb any spikes in the price that are market has driven, so right now we're not doing very well on crab," Scoma's restaurant employee Gordon Drysdale said.

Many blame El Nino's warm waters, which encouraged an algae bloom that created a potentially fatal neurotoxin in the crabs.

At Pillar Point in San Mateo County, that's bad news for dozens of sport fishermen who camp out in anticipation of an early November haul. Right now, it looks like a ghost town. "Then went home and for a few days, there's nothing going on here, there's no need hanging out here," sport fisherman Kieth Jory said.

The sport delay is even more worrisome to commercial fisherman who expect a similar ban within the next few days.

Dungeness is a $60 million industry in California.

Fisherman earn nothing when their crab pots remain on the dock and their boats tied down going nowhere.

This ban could last six months or a few weeks, but every day of income lost is one that guys like Jim Anderson will not get back. "I make 70 percent of my income on crab. It's a lot," he said.

Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin that can accumulate in shellfish, other invertebrates and sometimes fish. It causes illness and sometimes death in a variety of birds and marine mammals that consume affected organisms. At low levels, domoic acid exposure can cause nausea, diarrhea and dizziness in humans. At higher levels, it can cause persistent short-term memory loss, epilepsy, and can in some cases be fatal.

Domoic acid is produced from some species of the marine diatomPseudo-nitzschia. Currently, a massive toxic bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia has developed, significantly impacting marine life along California's coast. Biologists tested crab from eight ports from Morro Bay to Crescent City, and determined that domoic acid levels are exceeding the State's action level.

Algal blooms are common, but this one is particularly large and persistent. Warmer ocean water temperatures due to the El Nio event California is experiencing are likely the cause of the size and persistence of this bloom.

Commercial fisheries are also affected by domoic acid levels. CDFW has authority to delay or otherwise restrict commercial fisheries and is developing an emergency rulemaking under that authority.

The commercial Dungeness crab season is currently scheduled to open Nov. 15.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.