Conservation & Science

Mystery of the crabless Thanksgiving

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. In advance of COP21, Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today, we examine the complex ocean conditions making some crabs unsafe to eat.

The bowl of clarified butter is going to be so lonely with no steaming crab meat to dunk in it.

Local Dungeness crab is a traditional Thanksgiving indulgence for many West Coast families, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area. But this year, Dungeness caught off the coast of California, Oregon and parts of Washington is off the menu.

Dungeness for sale
Dungeness for sale at Pike Place Market in Seattle (Flickr Creative Commons/jpellgen).

Officials in all three states have delayed the start of their commercial crabbing seasons because Dungeness crabs aren’t safe to eat right now. They’re contaminated with a dangerous toxin, called domoic acid, that’s the product of an enormous algal bloom along much of the U.S. West Coast.

Is this climate change in action?


The scientific answer: Maybe. The algal bloom is linked to the strong El Niño that has contributed to record ocean temperatures this fall. As people release more carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels, both the Earth’s atmosphere and the ocean’s surface are warming, and extreme El Niño events are happening more often.

“To marine biologists and climate scientists, [the bloom] is a frightening omen of future distress to a vibrant ecosystem,” The San Francisco Chronicle reports. “It is the biggest and most toxic bloom researchers have ever seen.”

Stephen Palumbi, director of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, notes El Niño isn’t the only thing making the ocean act odd lately. “‘We are having changes in wind patterns, changes in upwellings along the coast,’” he told the Chronicle. “‘It’s like your whole basic ecosystem is being shifted around in different ways.’”

Pseudo-nitzschia under the microscope (Flickr Creative Commons/FWC Fish & Wildlife Research Institute)


Raphael Kudela, an ocean sciences professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, points to a combination of warm water, normal upwelling (which brings cold, deep water up to the surface) and animals like whales and sea lions moving closer to shore. Combined, these factors create what he calls a “Goldilocks” scenario ideal for Pseudo-nitzschia algae.

Over the last decade, he says, scientists have seen more toxic blooms in California, along with increasing surface temperatures and fewer nutrients in the water — even in non-El Niño years.

So, there are a bunch of complicating factors explaining the mystery of the crabless Thanksgiving. But climate change probably plays a role.

Pelagic red crabs_Patrick Webster
Thousands of pelagic red crabs took a northern detour.

Other weird stuff is happening in Monterey Bay this year. Naturalists on whale-watching boats report seeing species that don’t usually visit this far north, like flying fish, mako sharks and common dolphins.

That goes for birds, too. According to Monterey County Weekly, a local expert reports seeing brown boobies, black-vented shearwaters and a white-chinned petrel, all of which are usually found to the south this time of year.

And then there was the horde of pelagic red crabs, which normally hang off southern California and Mexico, blanketing the shore near the Aquarium in October.

No tears here: Chopping onions makes Chef Matt laugh.

Unfortunately, those crunchy little crabs aren’t nearly as tasty as Dungeness. But hey, good news! You can still have fresh seafood for the holidays. Check out this sustainable cioppino recipe from the Aquarium’s own Executive Chef Matthew Beaudin.



Chef Matt’s Holiday Cioppino


  • ¼ C olive oil
  • 2 large onions (small dice)
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. chili flakes
  • 1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 6 large garlic cloves (minced)
  • 1 Tbsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. saffron (about 35 threads)
  • ¼ C tomato paste
  • ½ tsp fresh oregano (fine chopped)
  • 48 oz. blended plum tomatoes (canned)
  • 2 C Pinot Grigio (or other dry white wine)
  • 4 C canned clam juice
  • 24 clams (littleneck or cherrystone)
  • 1 ½ lb. shrimp (size 31/35, peeled & deveined)
  • 2 ½ lb. bay scallops
  • 1 ½ lb. Pacific rockfish (cut into bite-size pieces)
  • 1 C curly parsley (chopped)
  • 4 Tbsp. lemon zest

To prepare:

Heat olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat until hot (about 1-3 minutes). Sauté garlic, onions, chili flakes & bay leaves until onions are translucent (approximately 5-7 minutes). Stir in tomato paste and cook for an additional 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Add white wine and reduce by one half. When reduced, add plum tomatoes, saffron & clam juice, bringing to a light simmer. After soup has simmered for one hour, add clams until they are just about open (approximately 5-7 minutes). When open, remove and transfer to a bowl for holding so as to not overcook. Add shrimp, scallops & rockfish to the broth and let cook for 3-5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Return the cooked clams to the pot. Stir in lemon zest, parsley & oregano, and let steep for 5 minutes. Serve in large bowls. (Serves about 10.)

Note: Broth may be made 1-2 days ahead if desired.

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