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Dungeness Crab Ban: What a Toxic Harvest Means for California Menus

What happens when the west coast's beloved delicacy turns poisonous?

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Liz Sassen, chef and co-owner of Homestead restaurant in Oakland, California, is rewriting the menu for her annual day-before-Thanksgiving feast. In previous years, hundreds of people attended Homestead's annual Crab Feed to dig into the "bountiful platters of crab and share the wonderful joyfulness," Sassen says. But now that the commercial Dungeness crab season has been postponed until further notice, the restaurant is coming up with Plan B, which involves plenty of mussels, clams, and shrimp served family-style. "It's a huge tradition that is beloved by our guests," Sassen says of the absent crab, "and will be sorely missed."

Dungeness crab has been a holiday tradition in the Bay Area since the bottom-dwelling crabs were first discovered in the late 1800s. Locally, the opening of the recreational and commercial crab season each November is perfectly timed for holiday feasts, with the season closing by the New Year. Local fishermen say their crabs are larger and sweeter than crab from other areas, because of the warm summer waters and plentiful food sources from the oyster beds.

But the 2015 fishing ban, announced on November 6 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), delayed the start of the commercial fishing season until further notice for both the popular Dungeness crab and rock crab, from Santa Barbara to the northern California coast. A day earlier, the CDWF commissioners made the same decision for recreational fishing. "We did this with a very heavy heart," Fish and Wildlife commissioner Eric Sklar said at an emergency meeting. "This is a crippling disaster that affects human health."

The fishery closure comes because of abnormally high levels of a toxin called domoic acid, which has accumulated in the meat of both crab species. If consumed, the crabs could pose serious health risks. According to the California Department of Public Health, symptoms of domoic acid poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, and dizziness — more severe cases can lead to trouble breathing, seizures, coma, or even death. The toxins have already been affecting local mammals. In September, more than 200 sea lions were killed off the central California coast as a result of consuming the toxins.

For Homestead restaurant, the no-show crab is a big disappointment. Sassen usually orders over 200 pounds of Dungeness just for the Crab Feed, and at least 100 pounds a week for her regular menu. She has started letting her customers know by phone and email that the Crab Feed this year will be without the prized main ingredient. "So far people have been totally cool with it," she says, noting that no one has cancelled their reservation. "People know this is because of Mother Nature."

"This is a celebration of the local crab catch. It doesn’t mean the same thing when the crab comes from Oregon or Washington."

"This is really disappointing," agrees Bob Partrite, the chief operating officer for three seafood restaurants — Fog Harbor Fish House, Pier Market, and Wipeout Bar and Grill — on Pier 39 in San Francisco. "It's our favorite time of the year, because we usually have up to 30 different crab dishes," Partrite says. According to Patrite, he usually orders a "staggering" 2,000 pounds of local crab per week beginning in mid-November.

This year, Patrite says he will secure what he can from northern waters, but that unless the situation changes quickly, he won't feature crabs. "This is a celebration of the local crab catch," he says of the Dungeness season. "It doesn't mean the same thing when the crab comes from Oregon or Washington. It's not like looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge and knowing that the crab was pulled out of the bay less than 24 hours ago. It takes the specialty out of it."

Crab pots sit at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Crab pots sit at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For the Dungeness crab fishing industry, the potential economic loss is still unknown. If the season doesn't open at all, the fishing ban represents a $60 million loss, according to Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education, and outreach at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. According to the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, there's a slim chance the Dungeness season could reopen in December. The season is divided geographically, explains Rod Moore, executive director for the WCSPA. "The only commercial and recreational delay so far is for the early season from Sonoma County southward. This is an obvious loss for fisheries that provide crab for Thanksgiving," Moore says. But for the rest of the coast, the season opens around the first of December, and "those waters could open," Moore says. "There may even be some California Dungeness crab for Thanksgiving. It's unlikely, but it's possible."

Traverso of the CDFW confirms that Dungeness crab is an essential part of west coast holiday custom — she grew up looking forward to crab feeds at family camping trips near Fort Bragg, California. "This is messing with our holiday traditions," she says. This year, the Grinch is indeed a big hairy green beast that has engulfed California's coastal waters. The domoic acid finding its way into the crab meat is produced as a byproduct of algae blooms. Localized algae blooms are common in spring and typically die off by November, when cool water currents wash them away. However, this year, the temperature of the Pacific coast is nine degrees above normal due to El Niño.

The Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, called this bloom "unprecedented," as it extends in varying degrees from California to Alaska. Scientists continue to monitor the bloom on a weekly basis while state agencies test the crab for the toxin. The algae is monitored with multidimensional accuracy thanks to bright yellow oceanic gliders that look a lot like Universal Studios's cartoon Minions, but with fins. These minion-mimickers swim just under the ocean's surface and collect data for rapid sampling.

As of press time, it isn't yet known if Oregon will be a viable second choice for Sessen and chefs at other California restaurants. The Oregon commercial Dungeness crab fishing season isn't scheduled to open until December 1. In early November, Oregon's Department of Agriculture posted a viscera warning for recreationally caught Dungeness crab in the southern coast. This means that the crab innards, known as crab butter, must be removed before consumption because of a slightly high concentration of domoic acid (30-40 parts per million). (For perspective, California tests were as high as 300ppm in the viscera and the meat.) Meat tests for the entire Oregon coast, collected November 9, had not been fully analyzed as of press time.

"It’s a disappointment for us and for our customers. But it’s more worrisome for the people who will lose months of wages."

"It's terribly unpredictable," says Judy Dowell of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, describing a few different scenarios. By December, the test results could go down and there will be "a crab in every pot," Dowell says. Or, there could be a commercial fishery viscera warning in the southern part of the state — which means meat can be eaten safely, but the viscera must removed. Or, in the worst case, there will be no viscera and no meat.

Sassen says the Dungeness crab represents a time of thanks and giving for residents on the California coast. "It's a disappointment for us and for our customers" she says. "But it's more worrisome for the people who will lose months of living wages." One can only hope that a rush of cold-water currents will wash away the algae in time for December.