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Dungeness Crabs Are Toxic, Declares California Health Department [Updated]

They've been found to contain potentially fatal levels of domoic acid.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Bad news for shellfish aficionados: This year's Dungeness crab season is off to a rough start. The California Department of Health is warning consumers not to eat Dungeness crabs caught off California's coastline until further notice, as they've been found to contain "potentially deadly levels of domoic acid," reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

The damning news comes just days before the official start of Dungeness crab fishing season, which is slated to begin November 15. Officials say consumption of the toxic crabs "can cause vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps and headache"; more severe side effects may include "permanent short-term memory loss, coma, seizures," and, in the case of more severe poisoning, death. Domoic acid is a naturally occuring compound produced by algae; per the Chronicle, fishermen believe this year's warmer-than-usual water temperatures are to blame.

The state's wildlife commission is slated to hold an emergency meeting on Thursday morning to determine what action should be taken, but authorities are recommending that the Dungeness crab season be delayed. The Chronicle notes that while restaurants can source crabs from other regions, many in the fishing industry earn a large portion of their income during Dungeness crab season.

No crab-related illnesses have been reported as of yet. It's not the first scare for seafood lovers this year: Back in May, the CDC warned that cases of Vibrio, a food-borne illness typically spread through the consumption of raw shellfish, were on the rise due to warmer waters caused by climate change.

POST UPDATE Nov. 5, 12:30pm: At this morning’s emergency meeting, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced a 180-day ban on recreational Dungeness crab fishing. Commissioner Charlton H. Bonham is awaiting further test results before making a decision regarding commercial crab fisheries; more information is expected within 48 hours. The Dungeness crab season was slated to open this week for recreational fishing, with the start of the commercial season to follow a week or two later.

The recreational ban will last the full six months unless test results change; said ban can also be extended for up to two additional 90-day periods, if needed. A commercial ban would likely look similar.

This morning it was revealed that the toxicity of this season's crabs is considered very dangerous because the domoic acid was found to be present in the viscera (crab butter) and the crab meat; typically it's only present in the viscera, so this is an out-of-the-ordinary case that required swift action to be taken.

— additional reporting by Kim Stewart

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