As state health officials and marine biologists continue to urge people not to eat certain types of seafood caught off the Central Coast, local fisherman say the effort is over-hyped.
On April 20, 11 days earlier than normal, the California Department of Health Services released its annual quarantine warning, which noted elevated levels of domoic acid a naturally occurring toxin that can make sea life and possibly humans sick in shellfish such as oysters, clams, and scallops from several counties, including San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. The warning was issued for sport-harvested mussels caught by amateur fishermen, but didn't apply to commercially harvested shellfish.
Seven days later, Health Services released another warning, adding sport-havested sardines, anchovies, crab, and lobster to the list of banned aquatic chow.
Because of toxin-related mass mortality rates of sea life this early in the season, scientists speculate that this year may be the worst in recent memory.
Joe Cordaro, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries wildlife biologist, said that local waters lost more than 1,000 sea lions and 50 dolphins to domoic acid poisoning in 2002-2003.
Already this year, Cordaro said, 17 dolphins have died from domoic acid poisoning, which is also suspected of killing sea lions, otters, and various birds. So far, however, the poisoning seems to only be affecting sea life.
"In California, we have never had a confirmed case of domoic poisoning in a human," said Richard Lichtenfels, an environmental health specialist for the county.
According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, three people died and more than 100 people became sick after consuming mussels tainted with domoic acid in Prince Edward Island, Canada, in 1987. Still, physicians frequently have difficultly pinpointing problems associated with the poisoning.
"Often times doctors have trouble picking [domoic acid poisoning] up unless they're paying attention," Lichtenfels said. "[Poisonings] may slip by because symptoms mimic other things."
One local fisherman argued that the state's press releases can lead the media to overstate the problem. A local television station once did a report on the issue, prompting what he considered to be an over-reaction: "My own mother-in-law stopped buying local fish," said Darby Neil, president of Virg's Landing in Morro Bay. "I hate to see [the media] put a big scare in people. Commercial fishermen are hurting already."
Some local media outlets have mistakenly referred to domoic acid poisoning as red tide. While the devastating effects the two phenomena can have on sea life are similar, the problems aren't related, biologist Cordaro said.
According to Neil, local shellfish harvesters plan for the elevated levels of domoic acid each year and wait for the water to become clean before releasing their products. He added that the pollutants don't affect local fish even if contaminated shellfish are used for bait.
"It's a certain plankton that puts out domoic acid," Neil said. "The fish we eat are deep-water fish that don't eat plankton. If [polluted] shellfish are used for bait, when they're hooked they don't have enough time to digest. And if they swallow it, they're dead and cleaned before they can digest it."
Neil said he eats local shellfish all the time and has never been sick from domoic acid, arguing that the toxin doesn't get into the food chain to a dangerous degree.
Lichtenfels agrees, somewhat.
"Commercially harvested products all need to be certified. They have tight restrictions," he said. "There's no reason to stop consuming commercialy harvested fish."
Cordora weighed in, too.
"People catching fish themselves should refrain from feeding on the intestinal matter where toxins are stored," he said. "The white muscle is good. But if catching seafood yourself, you should probably hold off on eating it."
He added, "We have over-hyped things before. But in this case, it's so toxic, we're doing a real good campaign [to bring awareness] because it could be a real tragedy."