California’s Dungeness crab season start in doubt due to toxic algae offshore

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With less than a week to go before sport anglers can begin setting traps for Dungeness crab, a persistent bloom of toxic red algae off the Pacific Coast is threatening to disrupt the start of the catch and one of California’s most valuable fisheries.

State officials are awaiting test results they hope will come back by midweek before deciding if they will delay the Nov. 7 recreational start, as well as commercial seasons set to begin a week later, Fish and Wildlife personnel said.

Concern about a powerful neurotoxin called domoic acid produced by certain marine algae is driving the deliberations in California and in other regions, including Washington state, where much of the Dungeness crab fishery was closed through the summer because of high levels of domoic acid found in crustaceans there.

In California, absent current test results to evaluate, “everything kind of is up in the air right now,” state Fish and Wildlife Department spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said Friday.

Overall, algae blooms that peaked in late summer off the California coast are reported to be diminishing, according to Pete Kalvass, senior environmental scientist with state Fish and Wildlife.

But domoic acid levels of even 21 parts per million in crab meat are considered potentially dangerous, Traverso said.

“We don’t know what the next step is until we get results,” said Christy Juhasz, an environmental scientist with the agency.

Barring a delay, the recreational crabbing season will start Saturday, Nov. 7, and can be expected to draw thousands of eager fishermen to the North Coast for what’s become an increasingly popular undertaking, spawning traditions that bring family and friends together, filling campgrounds, boat ramps and bays.

Campsites for the crab opener generally are booked months in advance in anticipation of the first-day scrum.

“We’re busy in the summer, and it used to be just the summer that we had the most interest,” said Willy Vogler, co-owner of Lawson’s Landing on Tomales Bay. “Then, in the last decade or so, November has become like another summer, and it’s primarily due to the Dungeness crab season opening up. … Losing the crab would be bad.”

Commercial crabbers would begin pulling their pots on Sunday, Nov. 15, south of the Sonoma-Mendocino County line, and north of it beginning Tuesday, Dec. 1. After a weak salmon season, they’re raring to go.

“There’s a lot of guys who need to go,” said veteran fisherman Chris Lawson, past president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay. “But the fishermen I’ve talked to — nobody is about to risk our markets by putting a consumer in jeopardy of getting sick from it.”

Scientists and wildlife officials for months have been monitoring a vast red tide up and down the West Coast, with accompanying domoic acid outbreaks affecting everything from California sea lions to seabirds, whales, fish and shellfish.

Though such algal blooms occur with some regularity, the size and density of the one this year has been considered especially alarming. It is believed linked to a band of unusually warm water stretching from Alaska to Mexico that has impacted coastal habitats in myriad ways.

Domoic acid is produced especially by an algae called pseudo-nitzchia that can accumulate in fish and their predators, concentrating up the food chain.

It can be harmful and even fatal if consumed in sufficient quantities.

Symptoms of mild poisoning include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, dizziness and confusion beginning 30 minutes to 24 hours after consuming toxic seafood.

Severe cases may cause difficulty breathing, seizure, coma and even death. Survivors in some cases may experience permanent short-term memory loss.

Cooking or freezing does not destroy domoic acid in shellfish.

Human health advisories are in effect in California warning consumers against eating recreationally harvested mussels, clams and whole scallops harvested off the coasts of Humboldt, Del Norte, Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Also on the no-eat list are commercially or recreationally caught anchovy, sardines and crab from the Central Coast counties.

Public health officials said bivalves, like clams, as well as anchovies and sardines are especially worrisome because the toxin collects in their digestive tracts, and those species typically are not gutted before consumption.

State officials currently are testing Dungeness crab caught out of eight California ports, including Crescent City, Trinidad, Eureka, Fort Bragg, Bodega Bay, San Francisco/Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Morro Bay.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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