By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - California authorities are moving to suspend the fishing season for Dungeness and rock crabs due to high levels of a toxin found in the crustaceans that could cause illness or even death in people who eat them, officials said on Wednesday.
The California Department of Public Health late on Tuesday advised consumers to avoid eating Dungeness and rock crabs caught along the coastline from the state's northern border to Santa Barbara County.
Elevated levels of domoic acid, a naturally occurring toxin found to have accumulated in the crabs, stem from an unprecedented algae bloom associated with a huge expanse of unusually warm Pacific Ocean waters dubbed "the blob."
Scientists say the runaway bloom of pseudo-nitzschia algae, which emerged in May and has stretched down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Southern California, has begun to subside but could be reactivated by the recent onset of El Nino, a separate climate pattern that raises sea temperatures.
It remained unclear how long the high levels of acid in the crabs would persist, according to the health department.
Commercial Dungeness crab harvests in California were valued last year at $60 million, not including retail sales, while millions more in economic activity was generated from recreational crabbing, said Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the California Fish and Wildlife Department.
In light of this week's health advisory, the state Fish and Game Commission on Thursday was scheduled to vote on a proposal to postpone the opening of the recreational Dungeness crab season, which was set to begin Saturday.
Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Department said in a statement that it would delay the start of the commercial season for Dungeness crab, which was to begin on Nov. 15.
Both commercial and recreational fishing for rock crab is normally open year-round but the Fish and Wildlife statement said authorities plan to close those fisheries in areas where rock crab have high levels of domoic acid.
The crabbing suspensions would mark the first time in memory that a fishery has been closed in California due to domoic acid contamination but outbreaks of the toxin have prompted seafood health advisories in the past, Traverso said.
Domoic acid poisoning from the ingestion of tainted crabs can cause vomiting, headaches and dizziness and in severe cases lead to breathing difficulties, seizures or death, the Public Health Department said in a statement.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott)