Officials in Washington state say they’re delaying the start of Dungeness crab season because the crabs contain domoic acid that can build up and is poison for the brain for anyone who consumes the crabs. They say it can lead to short-term memory loss and even death.
The decision was made because there is a threat from toxic algae off the coast of Oregon. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is concerned the algae could move north due to winter ocean currents.
It’s no surprise to UW research scientist Ryan McCabe who forecasts the movement of harmful algae. Lately, he’s been busy.
“For the past three years, we’ve had events every single year in Washington and in Oregon,” he said.
McCabe is tracking pseudo-nitzschia which produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid. It acts like a poison for the brain and builds up in shellfish like Dungeness crabs.
Domoic acid poses a major health risk for mammals. A sea lion was recorded several years ago having a seizure because of it, and it’s just as dangerous for humans.
“It’s very serious. It can lead to short-term memory loss in minor cases all the way up to death if enough is consumed,” McCabe said.
In addition to high levels of domoic acid in crabs surveyed, WDFW says the crabs are also low on meat and need more time to grow.
Right now, the algae is off the coast of Oregon, but it could soon move north to Washington. The Dungeness crab season is now delayed on the West Coast, all the way from northern California to Canada. It’s really bad timing since the Dungeness crab fishery is one of the area’s most lucrative.
The fishing season closures have been more common since 2015 because of warmer oceans. Scientists believe it’s due to lingering effects of “the blob,” a warm expanse of water off the coast of Washington in 2015 that caused all kinds of weather abnormalities.
“That becomes a problem, especially for coastal communities that rely on razor clam harvests and stuff like that for income. It’s a serious problem for the coastal communities. One event can shut down your season, but if that even lingers and then you have a follow-up event the next fall and the next spring, it snowballs from there,” McCabe said.