Toxic algae bloom grinds crab industry to a halt

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Crab fishing boats docked at Santa Barbara Harbor. Photo: Jonathan Bastian

Scientists say they’ve discovered one of the largest toxic algae blooms ever recorded. It extends from the Santa Barbara Channel all the way up to Oregon and it is taking a financial toll on the California crab industry.

Down at the Santa Barbara Harbor, it was quiet this week. Crabbing boats are docked in their slips. Crab fisherman Mark Brubaker sat aboard his boat, working on the engine, waiting. He’s not allowed to work in Santa Barbara County right now.

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Brubaker on his boat. Photo: Jonathan Bastian

“Without being specific on dollar amounts, this is my sole livelihood and only income at the moment,” he said. “I’m just sitting in limbo, really nervous about what’s going on, and not being in control of what’s happening.”

Brubaker makes a living catching rock crabs. Like dozens of other fisherman in the area, his business has been shut down ever since the the California Commission of Game and Wildlife announced that toxins from the algae bloom are showing up in crabs.

On November 6, the commission instituted a ban on catching and selling rock and Dungeness crabs from Ventura County all the way up to the border of Oregon. The algae is called Pseudo-nitzschia and produces a powerful toxin called domoic acid. High levels of domoic acid overstimulates the nervous system in humans and marine mammals like sea lions. Symptoms include stomach aches, headaches, cramps or nausea. In extreme cases, it can lead to seizures, and, potentially, death.

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Photo: Jonathan Bastian

In Santa Barbara alone, one distributor estimated that the ban is impacting between 300 and 500 people who catch and sell rock crabs. Rick Gutierrez is one of them. He’s co-owner of Santa Barbara Seafood Station. His company sells these crabs up and down the California coast.

This cone-shaped mesh net is designed to filter out single-cell algae species. Photo: Jonathan Bastian
This cone-shaped mesh net is designed to filter out single-cell algae species. Photo: Jonathan Bastian

“Right now it’s affected our business between 50 and 60 percent,” he said. “We already lost a company that has been buying from us for over 20 years. They just cancelled all the orders until further notice.”

Gutierrez estimates that his business has lost tens of thousands of dollars. And that’s just rock crab from one distributor in Santa Barbara. The Dungeness crab business in California is worth an estimated $60 million.

The problem started this summer when scientists from NOAA detected an algae bloom that started in Santa Barbara County and continued up to the Aleutian Islands.

“It’s one of the most geographically extensive, long lasting, and toxic harmful algal blooms of this type that we’ve seen on the US west coast,” said Vera Trainer, a NOAA scientist who helped discover the bloom. She thinks unusually warm ocean temperatures are to blame, a phenomenon that might become more common in the future.

“Whether this bloom is providing a window of things to come for the future of a world under climate change, I think that’s a distinct possibility,” said Trainer.

Unlike “Red Tide,” or other more visible blooms, it’s often almost impossible to see this algae.

Ben Pitterlee heads out to sample the algae bloom. Photo: Jonathan Bastian
Ben Pitterlee heads out to sample the algae bloom. Photo: Jonathan Bastian

Ben Pitterle of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, a nonprofit which monitors the health of marine life, takes frequent algae samples and sends them to the California Department of Health.

“Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not present,” Piterlee said. “Even once the bloom goes away, the domoic acid levels take longer to drop to safe levels.”

And that’s the issue. According to the California Commission of Game and Wildlife, those levels still aren’t safe enough, which means the ban on catching rock and Dungeness crabs is likely to continue.

Brubaker may be working on his engine and twiddling his thumbs for some time.