High toxin level delays California crab season

Wildlife authorities delayed the Dungeness crab season and closed the rock crab fishery for most of California on Thursday, just days after warning of dangerous levels of a neurotoxin linked to a massive algae bloom off the West Coast.

The state Fish and Game Commission voted 3-0 on the Dungeness delay and the rock crab closure north of the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line. The panel said crabbing would resume when toxin levels dropped but did not estimate when that might be.

The recreational Dungeness season was scheduled to start Saturday and the commercial season was set for Nov. 15. Rock crabs are caught year-round.

Officials on Tuesday warned people to avoid eating Dungeness and rock crabs. High levels of domoic acid have been found in crabs from the Oregon border to the southern Santa Barbara County line, the Department of Public Health reported.

In severe poisoning cases, the neurotoxin can cause seizures, coma or death.

It was unclear how much impact the actions might have on California crabbing, which is estimated to bring in at least $60 million commercially.

The toxin is linked to a vast algae bloom off the West Coast — which has seen unusually warm ocean temperatures as a result of El Nino, said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Such blooms are cyclical, but this summer surveyors aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel said the algae bloom was one of the largest ever observed on the West Coast.

The toxin has affected shellfish and sickened or killed seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales throughout the region.

Oregon state officials issued an advisory this week for all recreationally caught crab along the state's southern coast, from south of Coos Bay to California. Officials warned people to remove the viscera, or guts, before eating the crab meat.

Last month, Washington shellfish managers postponed the fall start of razor clam digging on ocean beaches, and all razor clamming remains closed along the Oregon coast because of high levels of domoic acid.

The announcement is already having a significant affect on Bay Area fishing.

The Huli Cat, returning after a day of rock fishing, is one of several sport party fishing boats operating out of Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay. Word of an indefinite delay in start of the crab season due to high levels of toxic algae has hit party boat crews hard. 

"So far, I've had over $10,000 worth of cancellations just as of this morning. We have never seen these kind of ocean conditions and ocean temperatures We've never seen a shutdown of this magnitude that we're experiencing.  It's absolutely unprecedented," said Tom Mattusch, captain and owner of the Huli Cat.

James Smith, captain of the sport boat California Dawn, is part of a third-generation fishing family, who along with his father and brother operates three boats in Berkeley.

"Will it clean up? Absolutely. Will we get to go fishing? Sure. The million dollar question is actually when?" said Captain Smith.

Smith has been "double whammied" by the algae because he also operates a commercial crab boat. With Thursday's delay, Smith says he laid himself off along with his nine employees.

"We got bombed on the reservations. I know my father's charter boat. He got bombed on reservations. I mean, we just had a massive amount of people cancel," said Smith.

But in every crisis, you'll also find opportunity. And in this case, all this warm water has brought exotic species here. 

"A couple weeks ago, we got into a school of bonito that was hanging out by the Farallones. There's also be a big school of blue fin tuna which are a rarity. They're a once every 25 years animal that we get up here," said Smith.

"Normally for albacore, we're going out a minimum of 30 miles and sometimes a hundred.  We're catching the blue fin as close as 4 and out to 15 miles," adds Captain Mattusch.

Non shell fishing is not affected by the algae.

"The fishing this year is tremendous. The rock cod fishing, the ling cod fishing it's all open. There's still halibut to be caught in the Bay," said Smith.