California lovers (and fishers) of the delicious and popular Dungeness crab may have to wait for their favorite delicacy. Wildlife and fishery officials are concerned the shellfish are toxic thanks to an unprecedented algae bloom in the Pacific Ocean.
— Olympic Forest (@olympicforest) November 4, 2015
As the Sacramento Bee reports, the culprit is El Niño, a warming of the Pacific Ocean that wreaks havoc on weather systems and marine life. This year’s El Niño is particularly strong, already raising water temperatures as much as nine degrees along parts of the California coast. That warming has led to an unprecedented bloom of toxic algae, identified by the Huffington Post as pseudo-nitzschia, all the way from the central California coast up to Alaska. Those algae emit a deadly neurotoxin called domoic acid, which appears to have made its way into crabs — Dungeness crabs in particular — making them toxic for humans to eat.
Symptoms of domoic acid poisoning can onset within about 30 minutes of eating the contaminated food. Those symptoms include headache, dizziness, vomiting, and diarrhea, and those are the mild cases. In severe cases, the toxin can lead to memory loss, seizures, cardiac arrest, coma, and even death.
Crab fisherman Dave Bitts explained, “This particular toxin is something we seriously do not want to mess with.”
The accumulation of the deadly neurotoxin in crabs off the California coast has put the Golden State’s fisheries and wildlife officials in an awkward position. The Dungeness and rock crab fishing season typically starts in mid-November, and delaying (or cancelling) crab season could devastate California’s fishing industry, which is already reeling from years of drought.
Officials will hold an emergency meeting today to hammer out a plan that could include delaying commercial crab season, cancelling it all together, or taking a wait-and-see approach. Jordan Traverso, deputy director at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the state doesn’t want to shut down commercial crab fishing if it can be avoided.
“Our mission is to keep fishing opportunities open. 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.”
— NBC Los Angeles (@NBCLA) November 4, 2015
Fish and Wildlife regional manager Craig Shuman, in remarks via Mother Jones, also reiterated that California doesn’t want to shut down or delay crab season if it can be avoided. But he has to look out for the general public.
“These are incredibly important fisheries to our coastal economies and fresh crab is highly anticipated and widely enjoyed this time of year. But public health and safety is our top priority.”
California diners needn’t swear off the delicious Dungeness crab just yet. The crab meat currently in restaurants and grocery stores likely didn’t come from the West Coast, so it’s probably safe, says Patrick Kennelly, chief of the foods-safety section at the state Department of Public Health.
“There’s a lot of areas around the country, both East and West Coast, that you can get crab from. 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.”
As of this post, there are no known reports of anyone being sickened by eating toxic West Coast crabs this year.
[Image via Shutterstock/Zigzag Mountain Art]