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Friday, June 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

El Niño Wreaks Havoc With California Crabbing

SACRAMENTO (CN) - Less than a week after opening the recreational crab fishing season, California announced that the lucrative commercial Dungeness crab season will remain closed due to a massive toxic algae bloom linked to El Niño.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife gave the green light to recreational fishing south of Marin County on Thursday, Feb. 11, crabs caught in other harbors are still testing positive for a hazardous neurotoxin called domoic acid.

State reports showed that enough Dungeness crabs were caught with the potent toxin near Fort Bragg and Bodega Bay to keep commercial fleets docked statewide.

Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton Bonham, who delayed the expected opening of the recreational crabbing season in November , said most commercial fishermen agree that the ban will protect people from food poisoning.

"I understand that there are people suffering economic losses from this closure," Bonham said in a statement. "However, the majority of the commercial fleet tells me they want a statewide opener, or could live with an opener that adheres to traditional management areas, which would provide the utmost protection against someone falling ill."

Exposure to domoic acid can cause nausea, breathing problems and seizures, but no illnesses from crabs have been reported in California this year.

The Half Moon Bay Seafood Marketing Association and the Dungeness Crab Task Force Executive Committee submitted letters to the department this week supporting the unprecedented ban until fishing can resume safely statewide.

The fishing season typically lasts through July, though the ban has already caused fishermen to miss out on the profitable holiday season.

Scientists say the high domoic acid levels found in the crabs are caused by a massive toxic algae bloom extending from Alaska to Southern California. The bloom, generated by unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures, temporarily delayed commercial Dungeness crab fishing in Washington and Oregon last year.

The three-month fishing ban sparked Gov. Jerry Brown to petition Congress last week for federal disaster relief. Brown says California fisherman have suffered more than $48 million in losses since November.

California seafood lovers can still buy fresh Dungeness crab from the Pacific Northwest, where commercial fishing has resumed.

With sport fishing now open in many parts of the state, the Fish and Wildlife Department advises recreational fishermen to remove the crabs' guts and boil or steam their catch. Preparing it in crab cakes, for instance, and cooking it on a stove, may not heat all the meat sufficiently.

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