Toxic Algae Stalls Crab Season

Posted on December 15, 2015 by


It was quiet on Pier 45. Crab pots were stacked neatly in rows. Idled fishing vessels bobbed at their berths. One of the few dock workers present made small talk on his cellphone. Another puttered by on an empty forklift.

It was just after dawn on a recent weekday. Larry Collins, a veteran of San Francisco’s crab industry, sat in his small shed of an office in a wharf warehouse and made note of the absence of activity at what should have been the frenetic advent of another San Francisco Dungeness crab season.

“There’s nothing going on right now,” Collins said. “Nobody’s working. By now, we would be bustling here. Working until midnight. Every night working on our boats. Forklifts moving product. Everybody would be working. Now, nobody’s working.”

The pause in the crab season can be traced to a toxic algae that is rare to the coastal waters outside San Francisco Bay but bloomed this year amid rising ocean temperatures. The algae produces a neurotoxin, domoic acid, that doesn’t faze crabs, but can sicken and even kill humans.

Acting on a state health advisory, the Department of California Fish and Wildlife has suspended indefinitely the commercial and recreational Dungeness crab seasons, which traditionally open in mid-November.

Weekly tests on crab samples have showed reductions in domoic acid levels in some stretches offshore. Still, not enough improvement has been made to open the season.

This has left Collins and others who catch, market, cook and consume what in San Francisco is a celebrated birthright foodstuff all caught in a state of crustaceous interruptus. Thanksgiving is gone. Christmas is going. Maybe by New Year’s, goes the optimists’ new mantra.

“Crab here is like a religion,” said Collins, a 58-year-old walrus of a man who fished out of San Francisco with his wife for more than three decades. A younger man now operates Collins’ 46-foot vessel, the Autumn Gale.

His time is occupied running the Crab Boat Owners Assn., along with building up a fishing cooperative that allows members to market their catches more directly, eliminating some middle links in the economic food chain.

Collins and other wharf denizens paint the opening of crab seasons past as a festival, with widows of fishermen tossing wreaths into the water, a priest blessing the fleet and vessels racing to be the first to return to the docks with crabs.

“When a crab boat came in,” said Angela Cincotta, a fourth-generation proprietor at the Alioto-Lazio Fish Co., “you would see people running from three blocks away just to see the boat unload.”

Not this season, she said: “There is no buzz on the street, no people, no excitement.”

Restaurants that typically order crabs by the thousands still call for the Alaskan crabs she keeps live in a tank. But they only want one or two. And given all the public discussion of domoic acid here, Cincotta said, some of her customers seem wary of eating any fish caught in Pacific waters.

Like many San Franciscans, Collins and his companions in the fish trade have absorbed wave after wave of change, a transformation of what once was a working city into a pricey hybrid enclave for tourists and new money types from Silicon Valley who can afford rents that have climbed halfway to the stars and beyond.

Collins remembers when the Fisherman’s Wharf district was filled with machine shops that turned out custom replacement parts for the fleet. Today it might be tough to replace a broken water pump — but scoring a souvenir T-shirt or renting a Segway is a cinch.

“This was a small town,” he said. “We have lost a lot of that. Now it’s all techies with a lot of money.”

Even before this season’s suspension, the coastal fishing fleet up and down California had been challenged by diminished fish counts, heightened regulation and related economic challenges.

“We’ve gone in my 30 years from 5,000 boats to 500,” Collins said. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

He blamed increasing diversion of water over time for agriculture and urban populations, water that otherwise would flow from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, through the Delta and San Francisco Bay, and into the Pacific.

“You need the flows, you absolutely need the flows,” he said of water captured before it can complete its natural course to the sea. “It’s not wasted water. This is a whole ecosystem, a delicate ecosystem, and we have managed to screw it up. Thirty years ago, the catches were huge compared to now. Everybody wants to develop. They call it progress. That’s not progress.”


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