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Delayed Dungeness crab season sinks catch, sales for California fishermen

Hearing in Sacramento

The Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture will convene a special hearing on the Dungeness crab fishery Aug. 10 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Room 3191 at the State Capitol. It will be streamed online at www.senate.ca.gov.

A historic delay in the 2015-16 Dungeness crab season reduced statewide commercial landings by more than a third this year and cut into gross sales off the boat by about 44 percent, according to preliminary figures from the state.

Bodega Bay, one of nine key commercial ports between Morro Bay and Crescent City, mirrored the sharp statewide downturn, with Dungeness landings down 37 percent from the previous season, to 1.8 million pounds, according to early calculations.

The figures, from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, offer the first postseason look at a grim year for the normally lucrative commercial Dungeness fishery - the state’s second-most valuable, worth about $60 million in most years.

Gross sales last season for the crab fleet topped $33 million, about 45 percent of the 5-year average, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. That figure could rise slightly once final numbers are in for July, the end of what is normally a seven and a half-month Dungeness catch.

Bodega Bay sales earned crab fishermen $5.8 million for the season, down 40 percent, the state reported. Fort Bragg landings were down 38 percent, with sales down 31 percent. San Francisco landings and sales slid 48 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

“Something is better than nothing, but we are not out of the woods,” said McGuire, who will convene a special hearing Wednesday in Sacramento to review the season, the push for federal relief and the outlook for next season.

The catch figures are likely to factor in the campaign to secure federal disaster money, though that effort, despite lobbying from California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown, has languished in Washington.

There was speculation earlier in the year that the Department of Commerce might only consider declaring a fishery disaster once the season closed and the catch could be assessed. Even then, Congress would need to appropriate relief funds, a step that has not been taken. McGuire said late-season catch likely did little to erase the financial pain of the crabbing community.

“Thousands of Californians continue to struggle because of the significantly decreased landings,” he said.

California’s commercial Dungeness crab season was to have begun Nov. 15 in waters south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line and on Dec. 1 north of Sonoma County. But it was put on hold amid tests of sample crabs showing an algae-produced neurotoxin called domoic acid at levels above federal safety thresholds.

The neurotoxin resulted from a prolonged and expansive bloom of toxic algae that caused widespread health issues among ocean wildlife last year, infiltrating the food web, poisoning marine mammals and seabirds and putting several varieties of West Coast shellfish off-limits to consumers. Though algae blooms are somewhat common, they typically arise in the warmest months and disappear before crabbing starts.

Early on, crabbers hoped the fishery might still open in time for them to benefit from the valuable winter holiday market. Somewhere over a half of the state’s crab is caught during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s seasons, when consumers are eager to put crab on their holiday menus.

But weeks passed, then months. The coast south of Mendocino County was finally declared clear for crab fishing at the end of March.

Most northern waters were opened May 12. The season end-dates are June 30 and July 15 for the two regions.

North Coast fishermen - many of whom were coming off a dreadful salmon season when the crab fishery closed down last fall - had reached a point of desperation by spring, as they faced setting crab pots so close to the molting season some feared they might harm future populations.

Many veteran fishermen only put out traps for the first five or six weeks of the abbreviated season. Most landed enough crab to make it worth their while.

“As it turned out, it actually worked out well for quite a few people,” said Dan Kammerer, who was one of few people who decided to skip crab season this year. “They did real good for that couple of months fishing.”

Joe Mantua, who runs one of the larger boats in Bodega Harbor, said his catch “wasn’t enough to hold me over for the whole year, for sure, but I was just working away to try and keep food on the table. That’s all we can do and hope it’s better next time.”

The outlook for the coming season is still uncertain, in the midst of another fraught salmon season that started May 6, then was closed for half of June and all of July, before reopening Wednesday for another two months south of Mendocino County.

Skipper Tony Anello, of Spud Point Crab Co. in Bodega Bay, said conditions are improved this year, including water temperatures that are several degrees below what they were a year ago.

Still, some signs are pointing to the return of a pattern of warmer water off the West Coast, known as the “Warm Blob” that upended some marine food chains and helped sustain the toxic algae bloom.

Perhaps worse, test results that have closed the year-around rock crab fishery north of San Mateo County closed since last fall suggest there may be what Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz, called “continued loading of the food web” with domoic acid, though it’s inconsistent.

“So right now, we can only speculate about what will happen this year,” Kudela said via email, “but it’s definitely possible we could have targeted closures.”

Mike Lucas, owner of North Coast Fisheries processing company in Sonoma County, noted that those outside the reach of crabbing also suffered last season as consumers normally enticed to the seafood counter by the prospect of crab walked away.

Lucas said he had to dispose of 20,000 pounds of miscellaneous shellfish once word about crab and domoic acid spread.

“There’s guys that aren’t even crab producers like we are that took it on the nose, that took a good punch in the face, because they weren’t moving their normal seafood items and they couldn’t figure out why,” Lucas said.

You can reach staff writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

Hearing in Sacramento

The Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture will convene a special hearing on the Dungeness crab fishery Aug. 10 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in Room 3191 at the State Capitol. It will be streamed online at www.senate.ca.gov.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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