November 4th, 2015.  By Aaron Kinney

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment recommended late Tuesday that the state put off the start of the Dungeness crab fishing season because of a potentially fatal biotoxin, as state officials scrambled to alert consumers and fishermen to a public health threat.

The recreational and commercial fisheries were slated to open Saturday and Nov. 15, respectively. It is now highly likely the seasons will be delayed indefinitely until the crab are deemed safe to eat.

The recommendation came hours after the California Department of Public Health issued an advisory warning consumers not to eat Dungeness or rock crab caught in California. Tests have revealed dangerously high levels of domoic acid, a compound produced by harmful algae blooms that have proliferated this year in the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon state officials attributed in part to warm ocean temperatures linked to El Niño.

Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the agency will likely decide by the end of the week whether to delay the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. The Fish and Game Commission is expected to decide the fate of the recreational fishery at an emergency meeting Thursday morning.

“It’s really a public health issue and that’s got to be our priority right now,” said Traverso. “We don’t want anybody eating crab with domoic acid in it that can potentially kill someone.”

Mild domoic acid poisoning may include vomiting and diarrhea. Severe cases can lead to permanent memory loss or death.

Delaying the start of the commercial crab season would be a letdown for Bay Area consumers who relish Dungeness crab. But it would deal a major financial blow to Northern California fishermen, who could lose out on the lucrative Thanksgiving market for crab and possibly the winter holiday market as well.

Don Marshall, a fishermen based out of Pillar Point Harbor in San Mateo County, said he would understand if the seasons are delayed, despite the hardship he and other fishermen would endure.

“If we lose all our holiday seasons, then that sucks, but that’s the way it is,” Marshall said Tuesday. “Welcome to crab fishing.”

The algae blooms have already disrupted razor clam fisheries in Oregon and Washington, which also shut down part of its Dungeness crab season this summer.

The blooms consist of phytoplankton, which are essential building blocks of the ocean’s food supply. They turn sunlight and inorganic nutrients into organic compounds that serve as food for other organisms.

Harmful blooms occur when conditions allow the phytoplankton to multiply to the point where there are about 1 million cells per liter of water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center. At that point the blooms become toxic.

Crabs, which scavenge along the ocean floor, absorb domoic acid when they consume mollusks or fish that ate phytoplankton containing biotoxins.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife has the authority to close the commercial Dungeness crab fishery. The state Fish and Game Commission would be responsible for delaying the recreational season. The commission could vote on the matter as early as Thursday.

The agencies will also consider closing the recreational and commercial rock crab fisheries, which are open year-round.

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