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Dungeness Crab: A Missing Holiday Tradition

Updated on December 29, 2015

One food that is missing from food distribution in Chicago is Dungeness crab, a common delicacy eaten around the holidays. The culprit, a Scrooge-like algae with a deadly toxin, has caused an indefinite delay in Dungeness crab season along the West Coast.

Algae and Domoic Acid: a Deadly Combination

This Dungeness crab season has been put on indefinite hold due to an algae bloom caused by a warming Pacific Ocean. This warming can be blamed on El Niño, a cyclical weather pattern that causes currents within Pacific Ocean to warm. Because of the algae bloom, crab fisheries from California to Washington state have been shut down. El Niño combined with the Pacific Warm Anomaly have raised coastal temperatures as high as nine degrees Fahrenheit. This warm water combined with sunlight caused algae to bloom. The algae produces domoic acid that is a neurotoxin that can kill both mammals and birds when eaten. It appears to not affect shellfish and can accumulate in crab meat during algae blooms.

Imported Crab and Other Substitutes

At Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, buyers can still purchase Dungeness crabs, but they are imported. Some community crab feeds are still going on, but with substitutes such as tri-tip steaks; other community crab feeds have simply canceled. In the hopes of continuing the tradition, seafood distributors are still offering high-quality frozen crab or "refreshed crab." Refreshed crab is frozen crab from the previous season. While not as desirable as fresh crab, it can make a difference between a crab feast, and no crab at all. Some parts of Washington are open to crab fishing, which means that buyers may be able to purchase Dungeness crab from this season.

Why Dungeness Crab?

Dungeness crab has always been an inexpensive alternative to King crab. With the shortage of Dungeness crab, prices have increased and the alternative, King crab, can cost nearly eight times more, if the buyer wants the crab legs fresh. Dungeness crab is considered to be sweet and delicate to the taste — something that customers look forward to around the holiday season.

Dungeness Crab Shortage

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Good News on the Horizon

If there is good news about the Dungeness crab shortage, it is that once the algae blooms situation is done and the crabs flush the toxin from their systems, there will still be crabs for the next crab season. In fact, it is likely that the crabs will get bigger. So with a little patience, crab lovers will be able to have their Dungeness crab for the next holiday season.



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