2016 hasn’t been a good year for the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery. The fishing season that typically spans the winter months – worth $212 million in 2014 – got significantly delayed this year when Dungeness crabs tested high for domoic acid, which sickens humans, and managers shut down the fishery. The crabs had fed heartily on a giant toxic bloom of Pseudonitschia algae, which produce domoic acid, and which were thriving in an unusually warm body of water stalled offshore, affectionately called “the blob.” The bloom also shut down other West Coast shellfish fisheries, too. The lost harvests equal lost income for West Coast communities. San Francisco Bay Area crabber John Mellor says, “If crabs were to disappear from the picture, I think it would be the end of my fishing career at this point.”
Both fishermen and scientists are asking what’s next for this fishery. It’s possible that ocean acidification could be the next big challenge it faces. NOAA research shows that Dungeness crab larvae exposed to ocean acidification in the laboratory develop slowly, and more of them die before adulthood. In addition, research from the University of California, Los Angeles shows that Pseudonitschia (toxic algae) produce more domoic acid under simulated ocean acidification conditions in the laboratory. But, the science is still young.
We need to know more about how Dungeness crab will respond to ocean acidification and all the overlapping environmental changes happening in our waters. Bay area crabber Josh Churchman agrees, “We could use a little more information and education about [ocean acidification], I would say.” Our new short film, “High Hopes,” takes a 5-minute look at the concerns of scientists and Dungeness crabbers about the fishery. The recent NOAA research promises to be just the first of many studies that will help us shield Dungeness crabs, certainly one of our staff’s favorite seafoods, from ocean acidification.