Unprecedented Crab Fishing Delay Because of Potentially Deadly Domoic Acid: Calif. Fish and Game Commission

In an unprecedented move, the California Fish and Game Commission voted Thursday to delay the opening of crab season because of potentially deadly levels of domoic acid found in Dungeness and rock crabs along the West Coast.

The 3-0 decision was made at an emergency hearing Thursday in Sacramento. It prohibits recreational and sport fishers from taking crabs from ocean waters, including bays and estuaries, north of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. The recreational crabbing season would have kicked off on Saturday.

"There has never been a fishery closure due to domoic acid before," Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Jordan Traverso told NBC Bay Area.

The algal bloom and domoic acid occurs often, she said, but usually cooler water temperatures have taken over by November, forcing the toxins to dissipate. El Nino-related warm water temperatures is the most likely reason why this bloom is so persistent and large this late in the season, she said.

In severe poisoning cases, the neurotoxin can cause seizures, coma or death in humans. The toxin has affected shellfish and sickened or killed seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales throughout the region. 

It is unclear when the ban will be lifted. The director of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the director of the California Department of Public Health must assess the situation and determine when the acid levels no longer post a significant risk, Traverso said.

The opening of the commercial crab fishing, set for Nov. 15, is up to the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife. A decision on that has not yet been made. The agency is currently "developing an emergency rulemaking under that authority," Traverso said.

State officials are keenly aware that the toxins are affecting both the people who fish for a living and those who want to enjoy crab, especially for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Dungeness crab fishing in California brought in $60 million in 2014, according to Department of Fish and Wildlife figures.

"These are incredibly important fisheries to our coastal economies and fresh crab is highly anticipated and widely enjoyed this time of year. Of course, delaying or closing the season is disappointing," Craig Shuman said. "But public health and safety is our top priority."

Scientists have been testing the crabs since early September, and Traverso noted the most recent tests came back showing significant health risks from the Oregon border to the southern Santa Barbara County line.

Crab fishers are anxious to see what will happen next. But they know the decision is out of their control.

"We're just waiting," fisherman Pulak Ung said Wednesday morning, standing on the docks in San Francisco. "We can't control this. It's the ocean. It's nature. We have no plan."

NBC Bay Area's Bob Redell contributed to this report.

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