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High toxin levels delay California crab season

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Wildlife authorities delayed the recreational Dungeness crab season and closed the rock crab fishery for most of California on Thursday, just days after warning of dangerous levels of a neurotoxin linked to a massive algae bloom off the West Coast.

The state Fish and Game Commission voted 3-0 on the Dungeness delay and the rock crab closure north of the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line. The panel said crabbing would resume when toxin levels dropped, but it did not estimate when that might be.

The recreational Dungeness season was scheduled to start Saturday. Rock crabs are caught year-round.

Fish and wildlife officials didn't immediately delay the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season, set for Nov. 15, but they were working up emergency regulations.

Earlier this week, the Department of Public Health warned people to avoid eating Dungeness and rock crabs taken from the Oregon border to the southern Santa Barbara County line because they were found to contain high levels of domoic acid.

In severe poisoning cases, the neurotoxin can cause seizures, coma or death.

It was unclear how much impact the actions might have on California crabbing, which is estimated to bring in at least $60 million commercially.

The commercial Dungeness crab take from Washington, Oregon and California has been cyclical, ranging from 8 million to 54 million pounds a year, but it remains one of the West Coast's most valuable fisheries, according to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

A commercial delay would really pinch small-time outfits because crab is a popular Thanksgiving and Christmas dish for many families.

"The chances of them getting on the Thanksgiving market this year are pretty slim," said Rod Moore of West Coast Seafood Processors Association, which represents processors from Northern California to the Canadian border.

Bill Gerard, a commercial rock crab fisherman from Santa Barbara, told commissioners that they should permit sales of crab claws because the neurotoxin is concentrated in the crabs' viscera. He also said the health warnings already are hurting sales, the Sacramento Bee reported.

"The dock was crazy last night," he said. "All our buyers canceled their orders."

The toxin is linked to a vast algae bloom off the West Coast - which has seen unusually warm ocean temperatures as a result of El Nino, said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Such blooms are cyclical, but this summer surveyors aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel said the algae bloom was one of the largest ever observed on the West Coast.

The toxin has affected shellfish and sickened or killed seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales throughout the region.

Oregon state officials issued an advisory this week for all recreationally caught crab along the state's southern coast, from south of Coos Bay to California. Officials warned people to remove the viscera, or guts, before eating the crab meat. The commercial season there doesn't begin until Dec. 1.

Last month, Washington shellfish managers postponed the fall start of razor clam digging on ocean beaches, and all razor clamming remains closed along the Oregon coast because of high levels of domoic acid.

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