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Regulators: Unclear when it will be safe to open crab season

Ocean fishermen already suffering from the delayed opening of the lucrative Dungeness crab season were confronted Thursday with additional uncertainty about their industry’s future, both near- and ?long-term.

With Christmas and what normally would be peak holiday demand fast approaching, spikes of a naturally produced neurotoxin called domoic acid still are being detected in test crabs plucked from some coastal regions, though levels of the substance in the water itself have diminished substantially, state officials said.

Continued fluctuations in the test crabs suggest the coastal commercial fleet could lose the market altogether this year - a threat with enough potential that state lawmakers already are laying the groundwork to seek federal disaster relief, should it become necessary.

After a dismal salmon harvest and the loss of the Thanksgiving crab market, a crab season that’s delayed past Christmas would cause “near collapse of the commercial crab fishery - and today is December 3,” state Sen. Mike McGuire said as he opened a hearing in Santa Rosa on the state of California’s rock and Dungeness crab fishery.

“All of us are hoping for the best,” said McGuire, chairman of the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, “but we also need to start preparing for the worst-case scenario.”

More than 150 people, most of them commercial or sport fishermen, attended the more than three-hour hearing that drew representatives from state health, food safety, environmental health and wildlife agencies and was led by McGuire and state Assemblyman Jim Wood, both Healdsburg Democrats. Wood is vice chairman of the joint committee.

Stakeholder representatives were invited, too, to speak to the impact of the state’s move last month to delay the openings of sport and commercial crabbing from Santa Barbara to the Oregon border. An unprecedented algal bloom along the Pacific Coast has produced unparalleled levels of a potentially fatal neurotoxin affecting a wide variety of wildlife, including fish, shellfish, seabirds and marine mammals like sea lions and whales. No humans have become ill.

Topics included the manner and timing for the fisheries to reopen once testing is clean for two straight weeks, the cascading financial impact of the closure and the science behind the algal bloom. But the most troubling subject for many was the challenge of rebuilding consumer confidence once crab can again be harvested and creating new markets to offset current losses.

“We need people to buy crab,” said Joe Caito, president of Sausalito-based Caito Fisheries.

Though such algal blooms occur seasonally, all agree the duration, size and toxicity of the current bloom, which started last spring, are unprecedented. It has affected, among other things, crab seasons in Oregon and Washington state, as well as in California.

Acting under advisories from the California Department of Public Health and the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the state Fish and Game Commission voted Nov. 5 to delay the recreational Dungeness crab season, which was to begin two days later. The Department of Fish and Wildlife soon moved to delay commercial fishing, which landed $60 million in crab last year, before its Nov. 15 start. The year-round rock crab fishery, located mostly off Southern California, was closed indefinitely, as well.

Testing of ocean waters shows that domoic acid levels have dropped to “very, very low or nondetectable” levels at most locations, said Patrick Kennelly, food and drug chief for the California Department of Public Health.

Testing of fin fish and bivalves like mussels indicates they are clear of the substance as well, while Oregon and Washington also are reporting positive trends, Kennelly said.

California’s crab will eventually metabolize the neurotoxin and be safe to eat, as well, he and others said.

But the continued fluctuations suggest they’re not there yet, state officials said.

“I don’t know when we’ll reopen,” Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham told the audience Thursday. “You deserve honesty.”

Several in the crowd, most of whom watched the proceedings with grim expressions of resignation, described friends and colleagues in severe financial straits. One speaker, Half Moon Bay fisherman Don Marshall, a board member for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said he’s working at a friend’s Christmas tree farm to try to stay afloat until he can catch crab.

Veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Stan Carpenter, president of the local Fishermen’s Marketing Association, said many spend tens of thousands of dollars to gear up for crab season. Other, younger crabbers have heavily mortgaged boats and state crab permits - which run tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars - that mean they are heavily burdened, especially after a salmon harvest about a third of normal.

“There are some guys who won’t make it through this,” Carpenter said.

But even as many speakers focused on current challenges, Cat Kuhlman, executive director of the state’s Ocean Protection Council and deputy secretary for oceans and coastal policy under the California Natural Resources Agency, warned that climate change and attendant problems like warming oceans, acidification and oxygen-depleted zones - in combination with El Niño and other natural forces - already were having an impact on wildlife habitat and the seasonal rhythms that used to be taken for granted.

“We’ve had absolutely crazy weather,” she said. “The ocean conditions have been absolutely crazy, and our scientists are telling us that these conditions are likely to be the new normal.”

“The oceans are changing,” said California Fish and Game Commissioner Eric Sklar of St. Helena, “and they’re changing fast.

“They’re changing in all kinds of ways - particularly in the timing of seasonal events. … I think this is a shot across the bow. I think this is something we’re going to see more and more.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. 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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