By Tara Duggan, San Francisco Chronicle.
Northern California residents ate very little local California Dungeness crab. Because an unprecedented closure kept crabbers out of the water until March, the crustacean didn’t play its traditional Bay Area role at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Chinese New Year and even Super Bowl celebrations.
The historic shutdown – and its aftermath – is why fishers, politicians, scientists and fishery managers are already talking about this year’s commercial season, due to open Nov. 15.
So far, there’s good news and bad news: Ocean temperatures are 3 degrees higher than usual, resulting in algal blooms in certain hot spots. But the situation is nothing like last year’s spikes of 8 to 10 degrees above the norm, which led to a massive algal bloom that infected crabs with the neurotoxin domoic acid that forced the closure.
“It’s still warmer than it has been for the last 10 to 15 years; it’s still really good conditions for these blooms,” said Raphael Kudela, an algal bloom specialist and Lynn Professor of Ocean Health at UC Santa Cruz who has been monitoring the ocean’s slow warming trend. Yet, he added, “it’s highly unlikely that we would have a bloom as large as 2015 that would cover the entire coast. It doesn’t seem to be developing that way.”
Even though last year’s “blob” of warm water finally dissipated, no one is resting easy – especially after the California Department of Public Health issued an advisory in August against eating rock crab from Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay after the crustacean tested high for domoic acid. Government agencies and legislators are trying to streamline the process of opening and closing fisheries for the crab season, so that areas that stay free of algal blooms can remain open even if other areas have to close, keeping more safe crab on the table and fishers in business.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we won’t see the widespread pervasive domoic acid levels that are above health alert levels,” said Craig Shuman, marine region manager of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, who said that safety testing on Dungeness crab will start this month, which is earlier than usual. There were no reported illnesses last year attributed to domoic acid, which can cause seizures, coma and even death when consumed by animals or humans.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, chairman of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, is emphasizing the positive when it comes to areas closer to the Golden Gate. “We’re seeing improvements off San Francisco Bay and the Farallones, which is the good news,” he said.
But in addition to Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay, hot spots also include Humboldt Bay, which was also a problem area last year, and the Santa Barbara area, which has a rock crab, not a Dungeness crab, fishery. (Rock crab hold onto toxins even longer than Dungeness crab.)
The timing of these blooms has also shifted. While it’s normal for certain toxic conditions to develop in the spring, they typically go away by crab season. What’s been unusual lately is how toxicity has developed in summer, which gives it time to stay around through fall, said Kudela.
“We don’t really understand why it develops in the fall some years and in the spring some years,” said Kudela, whose lab has developed computer probability forecasts for pseudo-nitzschia algal blooms, the culprit behind domoic acid outbreaks.
Despite the lingering uncertainty in the water, lawmakers are taking action.
When elevated levels of domoic acid showed up in Dungeness crabs last fall, the entire coast was closed to crab fishing until March, and there was a lot of uncertainty as to when – and if – it would open. McGuire is working on streamlining the process so that the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has to go through several legislative hoops to open and close fisheries, can be more nimble.
“What we’ve learned from this year is not each area of the coast should be treated equally,” said McGuire, whose district includes the coastal areas from Marin County to the Oregon border. “We’re developing a standard where an advisory would allow for a regional closure instead of complete closure.”
Another proposal would allow the sale of cleaned and cooked crab when tests show domoic acid to be at low levels and concentrated in the viscera, or the guts. The protocol for the Department of Public Health is to issue an advisory, which leads to a closure, when crabs show levels of domoic acid at or above 30 parts per million – even when the toxins are just in the viscera, where they tend to concentrate.
At a hearing last month, McGuire and others talked about allowing fisheries to remain open when crabs are showing low levels of domoic acid of 30 ppm, or slightly higher in the viscera, as long as the crabs are first gutted and then cooked before being sold. Mike Lucas of North Coast Fisheries, a seafood wholesaler in Santa Rosa, sees it as a possible solution.
“When you cook it like that, it actually tastes better,” said Lucas. Cooking crab in sections, rather than cooking the whole animal at once, is industry practice for snow and king crabs, but not for Dungeness.
For some home cooks, even raising the specter of domoic acid, at any level, can be a deterrent. But Shuman compared eating crab without the guts to taking safety measures when preparing raw meat at home.
“We all know that when we buy chicken, we need to cook it. We don’t eat it raw,” he said. “It’s safe, but it needs proper handling techniques.”
McGuire agreed that education is key to assuring the public that when the fishery is open, the crab on the market is safe. According to Lucas, his company lost $20,000 worth of shellfish – not just crab – after the Dungeness crab season opened, because retail stores weren’t buying it.
“People were walking past the fish case because of what they were calling ‘demonic acid,'” said Lucas, who blames the extensive news coverage of domoic acid, even though there were no reported instances of illness. “They were convinced this was in everything and it was going to make them brain dead.”
Crabbers caught 50 percent of the average Dungeness crab landings in California last year, with those in some areas doing much better than others. In February, California lawmakers requested federal disaster aid for those whose livelihood was impacted, which has yet to be approved.
Christian Cavanaugh, 30, bought his first boat, Chasin’ Crustacean, two years ago, investing $100,000 in a commercial fishing license. The first season went fine, but last year, he was able to go crabbing only briefly after the season opened.
“The tough part was waiting around week to week, waiting for updates, hoping it would clean up,” he said. “When we finally did go, the season dried up in 14 days. You couldn’t make enough to pay off the bait or the fuel.”
So Cavanaugh started a charter salmon fishing boat business to help pay his slip fees, insurance and other costs.
“We started doing this to kind of diversify and have a source of income outside of crab for the boat,” said Cavanaugh, who has been taking groups out two to four times a week from Sausalito. “I’m trying to go as much as possible just in case, knock on wood, we are postponed for any kind of domoic acid problems.”
He and other fishers should get some news on that fairly soon, after tests on Dungeness crab start arriving later in September.
“The No. 1 priority is that public health is protected,” said Shuman. “If everything comes back looking good in the early testing – as long as we don’t see any algal blooms – things should be good.”
Reprinted with permission of SeafoodNews.com