Dec 21 2015

No Christmas crabs for Californians this year

The savory-sweet meat of Dungeness crab isn’t going to make coastal Californians’ Christmas spreads this year.

Though the neurotoxin responsible for delaying crab season — the algae-produced domoic acid — has slowly begun to wane in the tissues and organs of West Coast Dungeness, the last round of tests in California, taken off more than a dozen ports in late November and early December, showed many samples still solidly above the limit of 30 parts per million. 

Two clean tests, a week a part, will be necessary before crabbers are able to ply the seas again, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Forty-percent of the Dec. 1 Crescent City samples exceeded levels deemed safe, at a total average of 34 parts per million, down from 44 percent and 40 ppm Nov. 18, 

Rough waters have delayed sampling for much of this month, said Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Kalvass, however, he anticipated a boat would be able to get out of Crescent City this week between storms. 

“Hopefully we’ll get the season started after the holidays, but I want to make sure everything is safe for the public,” said Tim Potter, owner of the F/V Pacific Pride, who had been responsible for fishing out the November samples. 

Potter had just returned Tuesday from the A Dock at the Crescent City Harbor, where he’d been hanging Christmas lights on his boat with his wife. Over the phone, he said he wasn’t “chomping at the bit to get on the water.” 

“I don’t get to relax and do a lot of calm stuff. I’m just enjoying time with my family while I have it,” he said. 

Potter’s boat was one of a handful of volunteers to leave pots to collect 12 crabs at graduated depths —15, 25 and 35 fathoms — off both St. George’s Reef and the mouth of the Klamath River. 

Following protocol habitually taken during the pre-season to test for quality and size as well as domoic acid, the crabs are then frozen and shipped overnight to the California Department of Public Health labs in Richmond, to be tested for solely for domoic acid. 

The volunteers pay for the fuel, and the Del Norte Fisherman’s Marketing Association picks up the tab for shipping costs.

Most of the higher domoic acid levels detected have been in Dungeness collected off the North Coast, or in rock crab found in waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

Meanwhile, Humboldt and Del Norte county razor clams are the only bivalve still deemed unsafe for consumption, since CDPH lifted all other health advisories on recreational clams and mollusks Dec. 9. 

Shellfish south of Bodega Bay, and in Oregon, have seemingly dropped off their domoic acid a little more quickly, according to CDPH figures. 

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Kalvass, noting that algae production is generally associated with higher water temperatures. 

Asked why this might be, University of California – Santa Cruz researcher Clarissa Anderson wrote in an email: “Our spotty pier-based monitoring is not extensive enough to really answer this question.”

She had a few guesses, however. Small resurgences of Pseudo-nitzschia, the single-celled chain-forming algae that produces domoic acid, have been seen since the large algae bloom that caused alarm this summer had dissipated some. This could account for how crabs may continue to ingest domoic acid, she said. 

“Crabs are acquiring DA (domoic acid) in the sediments where there is a lot of DA from the massive bloom. It could be that we just had great DA production in CA hotspots over the summer/early fall, thereby creating a larger pool of DA in the sediments (for) Dungeness to acquire,” said Anderson. 

The North Coast and areas in San Diego are still projected to be hot spots, though this has not been substantiated, she wrote. 

CDFW Director Charlton Bonham has said once the season opens again, there will be a lot of such questions that will need to be vigorously researched.

In the meantime, crabbers will continue to scrape by and volunteer their time and fuel to collect samples, hoping that when the season does open, all the publicity about domoic acid won’t scare customers away, said Capt. Randy Smith of the F/V Mistasea. 

“It’s really hard. Your bills keep going and we’re just sitting here. And with Christmas coming that’s really hard on the crews. That part’s the shame, but we’ve sat for months and months in the past,” he said, conjuring up past seasons stalled by crab that was too small or too poor in quality.

 “There’s no history or data available with domoic acid. It’s just a guess,” Smith said. “You can guess all day long if you want. With soft shell we know what we’re doing in numbers, but with this we don’t have any idea when we’re going to get out there. We’ve all been ready for a couple of months.”

christmasboatsTim Potter and his wife decorated the Pacific Pride with Christmas lights this week, relishing the free time while waiting for crab season to open. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson

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