Just as lobster season kicks into gear, state health officials announced Monday that people should not eat the internal organs of lobster or rock crab caught off the Ventura County coast because they could cause a potentially fatal disease called amnesic shellfish poisoning — though there are no known cases of human poisoning in California. Dangerously high levels of domoic acid were recently discovered in the organs of lobsters and crab in the area. Seafood lovers should also not consume recreationally caught mussels, scallops, or oysters — but commercially harvested shellfish are safe to eat because they are monitored by the state department on an ongoing basis.
The concentrated levels of domoic acid have not been found in Santa Barbara waters. Public Health frequently collects and tests phytoplankton samples and seafood along the coast, according to California Public Health Department spokesperson Matt Conens. The department would issue an updated health advisory if higher levels of this toxin were detected elsewhere. The shipment and sale of shellfish are restricted if elevated toxin levels are detected until lab tests for each batch prove otherwise.
This toxin occurs naturally — from just the right mix of sunlight, nutrients, water temperature, and salinity — and is produced by single-celled plants called diatoms. The ideal combination of these factors is not yet understood by scientists, and these “diatom blooms” vary by concentration and location. High levels of domoic acid tend to occur in the spring and fall and are common in shellfish along Ventura and Santa Barbara coasts. This is not associated with the “red tide” phenomenon, Conens added. In May, officials implemented a ban on recreationally harvesting mussels anywhere off the California coastline, which remains in effect.