Dangerous toxin closing California crab season

SAN FRANCISCO -- In California, fishing season for the Dungeness crab has been delayed, due to high levels of a dangerous neurotoxin. It's an environmental problem -- scientists blame warmer waters for the toxins. And it is also an economic problem. Dungeness crab is a $60 million a year industry.

In November, a harbor south of San Francisco should have boats scouring the ocean with their pots filled with Dungeness crab.

It's a season that commercial fishermen Frank Sousa and Gilbert Rosa know is now in jeopardy.

"We have all new crab gear this year," said Sousa. "And spent $40,000 getting everything ready for this season."

Fisherman Frank Sousa. CBS News

"This is by far the only year that we have been in the parking lot as opposed to out there catching some crab and eating it," said Rosa.

Eating them now is out of the question with California health officials finding high levels of Domoic acid in crab meat. If the Pacific Ocean waters stay warm, the crab remains poisonous. If the waters cool, the toxins will naturally dissipate and the season could be salvaged.

"This is out of the fishermen's hands. We have to wait until the product is safe," said Sousa. "I have kids and I wouldn't want to bring that product home to them so I can't bring it home to anybody else."

But the pain extends past the fishermen -- to restaurants.

Fresh crab now being served at some California restaurants is from Alaska, but that season is almost over. This time of year, the big draw to Franciscan Crab Restaurant is the Dungeness crab. In San Francisco, the crab is revered said co-owner Dante Serafini.

Crabs at a restaurant in San Francisco. CBS News

"It's crab at Thanksgiving... even if you have turkey you will have crab preceding the turkey," said Serafini. "It's a tradition in the city. I mean it's crabs at Christmas."

Holiday Dungeness is the bread and butter for fishermen. They said the Christmas crab accounts for half of their annual income.

"There is definitely going to be a financial impact, because, Thanksgiving comes around, this is a big money making event and it's gone," said Rosa.

If the ocean waters stay warm, "It could mean us losing all the stuff we have and having to sell off our boats," said Sousa.

"We have never had the situation where the crab season was being threatened," said Serafini. "We go through 400,000 pounds of crab a year in our restaurant and I don't know how to replace that."

The predicted torrential rains haven't even arrived, but El Niño may already have California in its claws.

  • Mireya Villarreal

    Mireya Villarreal is a CBS News correspondent.