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Tests buoy hopes for toxin-free California Dungeness crab season

BODEGA BAY - Optimism for the coming Dungeness crab season is building amid growing evidence that last year's historic problems with toxic algae along the California coast may not be an issue again this year.

The Nov. 15 commercial season opener is still nearly six weeks out, so there are no guarantees at this point. But testing of sample crabs suggests the fishery will likely open on time, making the shellfish available for the lucrative holiday markets, according to state officials.

“We believe that the worst may be behind us,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, said during a Tuesday hearing at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

Fishermen and consumers, who have turned Dungeness crab into a must-have winter treat, can thank cooling ocean temperatures for the brightening forecast, officials said.

In contrast, last year an abnormal expanse of warm coastal water brought unprecedented disaster to the $60 million crab industry, the state's second-most valuable commercial fishery. The so-called “Warm Blob” fostered a historic algae bloom that spread a neurotoxin called domoic acid in the ocean, causing it to accumulate in various seafoods, including rock and Dungeness crab.

Though pseudo-nitzchia algae is common to coastal waters during the warmer months, last year's bloom was unprecedented in its size and persistence, extending into fall and delaying the commercial Dungeness crab season by 4 ½ months. The suspension cut into statewide landings by about a third and reduced gross sales off the boat by about 44 percent, according to preliminary figures released in August.

The ocean remained warmer than usual through this summer, and pseudo-nitzchia started appearing in June and July, setting up the conditions for a “significant autumn bloom,” UC Santa Cruz's Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean health, testified Tuesday. But occurrences of domoic acid were less expansive than a year earlier and appear to have peaked a few weeks ago, he said. With ocean temperatures lowering and transitioning to more of a winter pattern, the outlook is hopeful, he said.

In advance of the oncoming season, the California Department of Public Health has been testing at different spots along the coast over the past 2 ½ months, occasionally finding “hot” crab in which domoic acid was detected above federal thresholds, mandating action by authorities.

Patrick Kennelly, chief of the food safety section for CDPH, said testing has shown improvement, though it's possible occasional spikes could still appear.

Kennelly noted that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regulates the crab fishery, has the discretion to delay opening isolated areas if continued testing suggests a need. Kennelly said fish and wildlife authorities are “cautiously optimistic” the fishery can open on time. Crab fishermen in Bodega Bay already are gearing up for the season, preparing a few weeks earlier in some cases than they normally would after a year of extraordinary challenges. Most also fish salmon, which produced a poor catch this summer following a weak catch in 2015.

“These guys are just hanging on by their shoe strings,” said Lorne Edwards, the newly elected president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen's Marketing Association.

That means much hope rides on the this year's crab season, Edwards said.

“Guys are already starting to work on their gear and get their boats changed over” to fish crab, he said. “They're kind of excited.”

Along with McGuire, D-Healdsburg, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, also appeared at the hearing. Retired fisherman Chuck Cappotto told the lawmakers that he hoped the state would help California crabbers market their catch after the negative press of the past year.

“We need to reassure the California consumer that the crab they're getting is the best possible crab,” Cappotto said.

The Dungeness crab fishery is supposed to open to recreational crabbers on Nov. 5 in ocean waters off California.

The commercial season typically starts Nov. 15 south of the Sonoma-Mendocino line and runs through June 30. North of the county line, the season begins Dec. 1 and runs through July 15.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 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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