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Toxic Dungeness crabs inspire climate change action

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A toxic bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia phytoplankton has doomed crab season. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)
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We’ve all heard the bad news: State officials delayed our local Dungeness crab season. San Franciscans excited to lay traps last weekend had to find other plans. Fishermen won’t crowd the wharf eager to take advantage of San Francisco’s early commercial season. Restaurant owners, grocers and consumers around The City will have to pay extra for Dungeness crabs from Alaska or Canada. And activists, like me, will scratch our heads and try to figure out what to do.

Clearly, Mother Nature is communicating a warning to us through one of The City’s most beloved foods. An unusually large, persistent and toxic bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia phytoplankton has contaminated our crabs. If we don’t pay attention to this warning, will we have more crab-less Thanksgivings? I hope not. I want to help future generations of local Dungeness crabs find their way to my table.

Many articles attribute the unusual bloom to climate change, so my first idea was to reduce my carbon footprint. According to Dr. Christopher Jones, program director of CoolClimate Network at UC Berkeley, food is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in California households. He assured me even imported crab from Alaska doesn’t have a high carbon footprint. But meat, dairy and processed foods do contribute to greenhouse gas emissions significantly. If I hope to eat local Dungeness crabs in the future the answer seems simple: Don’t fill my plate with hamburgers and hot dogs now.

But climate change may be too simple an explanation for this year’s toxic crabs, said Dr. William Cochlan of San Francisco State University’s Romberg Tiburon Center. He told me Pseudo-nitzschia regularly grows in the Pacific Ocean, although not at the scope and toxicity he’s seen this year. He also reminded me the Pacific Ocean has regular El Nino seasons with warmer-than-usual water. If warm oceans were the only reason we aren’t stuffing our faces with local Dungeness crabs, toxic blooms would have contaminated our crabs before.

There’s also the Blob — a massive area of warm water in the Pacific Ocean first detected in 2013. While Dr. Nicholas Bond, the Washington State Climatologist who discovered the Blob, doesn’t associate it with climate change, he acknowledges it raises important implications for the marine ecosystem. The problem is scientists don’t know if and how the Blob causes some species to suffer and other species, like Pseudo-nitzschia, to thrive.

It’s hard to stomach all this crab uncertainty without some butter to dip it in. I admitted to Dr. Cochlan that I want to use my column to inspire action, not only present uncertainties. He suggested encouraging more scientific research. “We’re not going to be able to mitigate this sort of issue or even try to control it unless we understand the science behind the event,” Dr. Cochlan said. “If we want to understand these systems, we have to invest in the science.”

He is right. Before governments create policies or enact laws, we need clear information. But that doesn’t mean I need to wait before doing something myself. The absence of local Dungeness crabs has reminded me how important they are to the character of San Francisco. When Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” last visited The City, one of his first stops was Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street for sourdough bread dipped in Dungeness crab fat. In a city full of fancy food options, Bourdain’s choice made sense. Dungeness crab isn’t just delicious — it’s a forkful of San Francisco culture.

We can still get Dungeness crabs from other spots along the Pacific Coast, but it’s not the same. Local crabs and the far-from-quaint San Francisco culture surrounding them have an intangible value others lack. They deserve our attention. That’s why I’m going to reduce my consumption of meat, dairy and processed foods. The science may still be uncertain, but the hope of next year’s Thanksgiving Dungeness crab feast is inspiration enough for me.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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