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Hordes of red crabs wash up on Southern California beaches

SAN DIEGO - Hundreds of thousands of tiny crabs have been washing up on Southern California beaches, marring the sandy coastline with streaks of red, as warm ocean currents carry them farther north and closer to shore than usual, officials said o...

SAN DIEGO - Hundreds of thousands of tiny crabs have been washing up on  Southern California beaches , marring the sandy coastline with streaks of red, as warm ocean currents carry them farther north and closer to shore than usual, officials said on Wednesday.

The red tuna crabs have been dying in hordes on beaches from San Diego to Orange County, although some have been washed back out to sea alive.

Such strandings take place periodically and are not necessarily a threat to the species, according to  Linsey Sala , collection manager for the Pelagic Invertebrates Collection at the  University of California , San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography,

"This is definitely a warm-water indicator," Sala said. "Whether it's directly related to El Nino or other oceanographic conditions is not certain."

Scripps has cautioned people not to eat the crabs because the creatures may have ingested toxin-producing phytoplankton.

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Scientists have noted the presence of a toxic algae bloom in the  Pacific Ocean  stretching from  California  north to Washington state that might be the largest ever detected off the U.S. West Coast. Sala could not say if the crab strandings might be related to the algae bloom.

The crabs are unusual in that they can spend most if not all of their lives free swimming in the water column rather than close to the bottom, although larger adults will make excursions to the seafloor, Sala said.

The plankton-eating crabs, native to the waters of the Gulf of  California , Baja  California  and the  California  Current, are one to three inches long and resemble tiny lobsters. Their scientific name is Pleuroncodes planipes and they also are known as pelagic red crabs.

"They are mostly grazers in the upper 200 meters (yards) of the ocean," Sala said. "Because they can swim in the water column, they can be transported by strong currents."

Warmer water brought them north and ashore, Sala said.

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