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Crab Season Might Get Canceled Because Of A Toxic Algae Bloom

Fresh catch of Dungeness crab at Pier 39, San Francisco. Sadly, this might not be a sigh this winter because of an offshore algal bloom. (Photo by CAN BALCIOGLU via Shutterstock)
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California's crab season is in trouble, and eating the delicious critters this winter might not be a possibility due to high levels of toxins in their flesh.On Tuesday, the California Department of Public Health issued a warning to not eat Dungeness or rock crabs caught between the southern border of Santa Barbara County and the Oregon border due to high levels of domoic acid. The naturally-occurring neurotoxin comes courtesy of a large algal bloom off the coast which, according to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife, is being nurtured by the warm waters from the "Godzilla" El Niño.

The symptoms of mild domoic acid poisoning can occur any time between half an hour to 24 hours after eating tainted seafood, and include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache and dizziness that can last for several days. The worst cases of poisoning can cause difficulty breathing, confusion, disorientation, seizures, permanent short-term memory loss, coma, or even death. Domoic acid can even persist in the meat after it is cooked at high temperatures.

The warning from the Department of Public Health comes just days ahead of what is scheduled to be the opening of the recreational crab season on Saturday. The commercial season is set to start Sunday, Nov. 15, and its opening is also currently up in the air. "These are incredibly important fisheries to our coastal economies and fresh crab is highly anticipated and widely enjoyed this time of year. Of course, delaying or closing the season is disappointing," said CDFW Marine Regional Manager Craig Shuman. "But public health and safety is our top priority."

Fishing boat captain Mike Dvorak told SFGate that a potential closing of the crab season would be "devastating" for the crab fishermen whose livelihoods depend on this time of the year. "They won't know what to tell their families," he said.

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A spokesman with the CDPH told LAist that he could not comment on whether or not it was likely that the CDFW would close the crab season—the agency has scheduled an emergency meeting on Thursday make that determination. According to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the levels of the Pseudo-nitzschia algae responsible for the toxin peaked during the summer, but even levels as little as 21 parts per million in crab meat can still be dangerous. "We don’t know what the next step is until we get results," said Christy Juhasz, an environmental scientist with CDFW.

Advisories are also in effect in several counties in the state for shellfish such as mussels, clams, and scallops, along with anchovies and sardines because of the algal bloom.