Federal aid finally on the way to Northern California for 2015 Dungeness crab disaster

Federal disaster aid is finally on the horizon for California crabbers who suffered through the 2015-16 commercial season, a period of unprecedented hardship that ushered in a new era of uncertainty over the potential for toxic algae to disrupt the fishery.

The long-awaited assistance for North Coast fishing communities - including $25.6 million to bolster the state’s struggling commercial crab industry - should be delivered on June 1, coastal Reps. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, announced Monday.

The package contains $22.8 million in direct aid to crabbers and seafood processors affected by a 41/2-month delay in the commercial 2015-16 season, when the California fleet confronted overall revenue losses of 43% compared with the average of the previous five years, according to federal fisheries managers.

The disaster relief will be a welcomed windfall now, though frustration and disillusionment with the process muted reception to the news.

“It’s about $28,000 for me, you know, and it should have been distributed a long time ago,” said veteran Bodega Bay skipper Tony Anello, 70.

The timing is fortuitous for some because of a recent court settlement that resulted in the early closure of this year’s Dungeness crab season on April 15 as part of an effort to remove crab gear from coastal waters when migrating whales are most likely to be present.

The agreement to finish the season 21/2 months early followed a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which alleged the state Department of Fish and Wildlife did not take sufficient measures to prevent the crab industry from putting endangered and threatened whales and sea turtles at risk.

The resulting settlement could mean early closures of the fishery henceforth, depending on utilization of new technologies and abundance of marine animals in certain regions.

Anello is among those who usually fish for Dungeness crab until the last day of the season, June 30, so getting a relief check now “is going to help a lot,” he said. “The way this late season closure, it really hurt us because the bills keep coming on, and the boat payments keep coming on, the insurance payments keep coming.”

Another prominent Bodega Bay fisherman, Dick Ogg, said he’s pretty confident the money will come through this time, but “it’s taken an awfully long time.”

“They’ve been told month after month it’s coming,” said Ogg, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“And the delay after delay occurs, and experience should tell fishermen not to expect anything until there’s a piece of paper with their name on it in the mail or in their hands, on in their account. ... It’s an absurd situation, the 3½ year journey to provide relief for an environmental disaster.”

The aid package includes more than $14 million to be divided between 570 Dungeness crab permit holders in California, including about 60 in Bodega Bay.

They are to be paid according to the number of crab traps they were permitted for in the 2015-16 season - from $42,680 for those permitted for 500 pots to $14,938 for those permitted for 175.

Seafood processors will share in $7.3 million, depending on the history of how much volume they handled in the past, while commercial passenger vessels will get a share of $664,115.

Nearly $2.6 million more, or 10% of the total crab relief, has been earmarked for mitigation efforts and competitive research grants aimed at improving the resiliency of the crab fishery, given the potential for future domoic acid events as ocean conditions change.

This is likely to include efforts to improve the sampling of crab and speed up the time between sampling and test results.

Currently, it takes about a week for tests to determine if waters are safe for fishing.

The toxic algae bloom that brought domoic acid into the public lexicon arrived as a result of the Warm Blob, an unusually persistent and broad band of warm water that spread down the Pacific Coast in 2014 and gave rise to a pseudo-nitzschia, which naturally produces a potentially dangerous neurotoxin that can build up in crab and other animals as they consume smaller creatures.

When it did not subside by Nov. 15, when the commercial Dungeness crab season usually opens south of the Mendocino County line, state health officials were forced to close the fishery until it cleared out.

But weeks and then months passed, and the problem persisted, forcing the commercial crabbing fleet to forgo the lucrative Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s market, when most of its money is made each year.

By the time the season opened in late March 2016, the fleet was on track to lose 43% of its average annual revenue, pulling in just $39 million statewide, compared to a five-year average of $68 million, said Kevin Duffy, strategic planning coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The commercial rock crab industry, located mostly on the Central Coast, also was hit.

Its $2.8 million average harvest was cut by 53%, Duffy said.

Local legislative representatives were working to prime then-Gov. Jerry Brown and federal officials to pursue federal disaster aid even before the season finally opened, but delays nonetheless ensued.

The Department of Commerce finally declared the Dungeness crab disaster in the final days of the Obama administration in January 2017 as part of a package of numerous west coast fishery disasters.

It wasn’t until February 2018 that Congress appropriated $200 million to provide aid to those on the list.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the absence of deadlines on disaster aid is not helpful, but politics enters in, as well, while Huffman outright blamed the Trump administration.

“Tribes, hardworking fishermen, their families, and coastal communities have been stuck in limbo for far too long waiting for the federal support they deserve,” Huffman said in a news release.

“Congress provided this disaster relief funding more than a year ago, but the Trump administration has dragged out the process. Their delays and roadblocks have added unnecessary pain for the tribes and fishing communities who are already dealing with closed fisheries and serious economic hardship.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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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