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Toxic Algae Blooms Are Ruining California’s Crabbing Season

Times are tough for the oceans and those who love to eat the delicious sea creatures they hold.
February 24, 2016, 11:00pm
Photo via Flickr user cproppe

Times are tough for the oceans and those who love to eat the delicious sea creatures they hold.

Thanks in large part to humans, a litany of ailments plague our seas: there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050; overfishing is a perpetual concern; and as waters warm due to global warming, harmful algal blooms that harm wildlife thrive. One of those algal blooms is currently parked off the coast of California, poisoning crabs and threatening to cancel the Dungeness and rock crabbing season.

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Commercial Dungeness and rock crabbers have been left stranded on the docks since the crabbing season was supposed to start last November. Officials pushed back opening day when they found some crabs contained high levels of domoic acid, a neurotoxin that causes shellfish poisoning and can lead to vomiting, seizures, and death. The San Francisco Chronicle has closely followed the situation and dubbed it the "Crab Crisis."

The acid was the result of blooms created by unusually warm waters. In some places, blooms, known as red tides, were 40 miles wide. The collection of blooms stretched from California to northern Washington, making it the biggest recorded on the Pacific coast.

The postponed season has forced California restaurants to serve up crabs imported from Oregon and Washington. Long-running crab feasts have had to do the unthinkable and replace their signature offering with substitutes like beef.

But while crab lovers have been forced to make due without local crabs, it's commercial crabbers in the Bay Area that have been hit the hardest. California Governor Jerry Brown has requested that the federal government declare the situation a fishery disaster, which would allow commercial crabbers to seek emergency financial aid.

"I could sum it up in one word: torture," Tony Anello, a crabber in Bodega Bay, California, told the Wall Street Journal. "Luckily some of us had savings."

Thankfully, the levels of toxin seem to be subsiding, and recreational crabbers in some areas got the go-ahead to catch crabs in early February, so long as they prepare the crabs by boiling or steaming them. But officials are waiting for the all-clear before reopening the waters to commercial crabbers. Scientists fear that domoic acid is now spread throughout the food chain.

"We have pretty good evidence the crabs are getting more toxins from the sediments on the sea floor," Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "They are essentially getting reinfected."

If Californians want to eat crabs, they are going to have to catch them themselves. Or perhaps some opportunistic recreational crabber will take advantage of the situation and get a crab black market going. As Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Deputy Chief Mike Cenci told reporters last time there was a black market crab bust in the Pacific Northwest, if you're buying crabs from a nail salon, they're probably illegal.