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State warns about seafood danger

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Times Staff Writers

Citing concerns over the domoic acid poisoning that has already sickened hundreds of birds, state health regulators on Friday urged people not to eat certain types of seafood -- including shellfish and sardines -- caught by recreational fishermen off most of the Southern California coast.

The warning also covers the organs of commercially sold lobster and crabs as well as those caught by recreational anglers.

Health officials typically issue a warning against eating mussels about May 1. Officials say they know of no one who has been sickened. But this year, regulators decided to expand the quarantine after finding high concentrations of domoic acid in some samples of other shellfish, said Lea Brooks, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services.

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Friday’s warning comes as hundreds of sick or dead marine birds are being washed ashore up and down the coast, their conditions linked to a particularly virulent outbreak of the naturally occurring domoic acid toxin, scientists say.

The seafood warning pertains to bivalve (two-shelled) shellfish such as oysters, clams and scallops, as well as anchovies taken off the coast of Los Angeles, Orange, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

The warning applies to seafood caught from shore and boats.

The fishing season for some of the creatures covered by the warning is ending. But other species now quarantined, such as mussels and Pismo clams, are harvested throughout the year, according to state sportfishing regulations.

The spiny lobster season ended more than a month ago, putting a stop to occasional nighttime fishing trips for Ken Brock, a retired pipe welder from Culver City.

During the winter, he takes his motorboat to Santa Monica Bay every other week to catch spiny lobsters to barbecue. Although he discards the organs, he is still concerned about poison getting into his body.

“Domoic acid is in fish like sardines,” he said. “I catch halibut, and the halibut are eating the sardines as bait. And I eat the halibut. Who knows what could happen?”

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Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, was not surprised to learn of the quarantine. But he was concerned for the health of anyone consuming seafood containing the toxin.

“We see sea lions washed up on the beach from the domoic acid poisoning,” he said. “It’s hard to escape the consequences when you see large mammals like that in a state of such illness.

“We’re also concerned for the health of our ocean,” he added. “These are forage fish. They are key to the health of the whole ecosystem. If you take out an important piece of the food chain, it will affect the other parts.”

Domoic acid is a naturally occurring toxin that can cause humans to get sick. Dogs, cats, birds and other household pets also are susceptible to such poisoning and should not eat the seafood either, officials warned.

Friday’s warning does not apply to commercially caught bivalve shellfish, such as clams and oysters, which are sold by certified harvesters and dealers subject to frequent mandatory testing, regulators said.

State law bans people from selling clams, mussels, scallops or oysters unless they are certified commercial harvesters or dealers.

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Officials advise those who eat crabs and lobsters to consume only the white meat, removing and discarding the dark-colored organs, or viscera, before cooking.

Symptoms of domoic acid poisoning can occur within 30 minutes to 24 hours after eating toxic seafood. In mild cases, they can include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache and dizziness. The symptoms disappear within several days.

In severe cases, people can have difficultly breathing and experience confusion, disorientation, permanent loss of short-term memory, a coma and even death.

amanda.covarrubias @latimes.com tony.barboza@latimes.com

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