California’s Dungeness crab fishermen have had a rough year. Poor meat quality, endangered whales migrating too close to shore, and price disputes with wholesalers kept crab pots on boats for nearly two months. The delays left families without their cherished holiday centerpiece and fisherman without the funds that normally pay their bills the rest of the year.
But as rising ocean temperatures threaten to make fishery closures routine, it will be even harder to count on crab for holiday meals—or livelihoods. Over the past decade, warming sea waters have produced harmful algal blooms that contaminate crab meat with domoic acid, a neurotoxin that can cause seizures, memory loss, and other serious symptoms and has been blamed for poisoning and stranding scores of sea lions in California every year. State officials delayed three out of the last six crab seasons to protect public health after an unprecedented multiyear marine heatwave, dubbed “the blob,” hit the North Pacific Ocean in 2013.
The blob precipitated a series of extraordinary events: it caused a massive harmful algal bloom that led to record-breaking domoic acid concentrations, which in turn caused first-of-its-kind closures of the West Coast’s most valuable fishery, from southern California to Washington state. But in doing so, it also set up a natural experiment that researchers harnessed to reveal strategies that could help food-producing communities recover from climate-driven disturbances.
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