Disaster loans opened to California’s Dungeness crab fishermen, businesses
With no end in sight to the now 3-month delay in California’s commercial crab season, fishermen and other businesses reliant on the usually lucrative Dungeness catch got their first bit of good news Thursday.
The U.S. Small Business Administration announced that low-interest disaster loans are now available to commercial anglers and other businesses affected by the continued closure, which stems from a potentially deadly neurotoxin affecting the fishery.
The loans, which max out at $2 million, with 4 percent interest, are the first significant help extended to crabbers, seafood processors and others who have been economically devastated by the foregone season. California crab landings are usually worth about $60 million a year or more.
Reaction to the news among Bodega Bay fishermen was nonetheless muted, given continued uncertainty about the remainder of the crab season and the future of the salmon fishery, which was largely a bust last year.
“I’m glad to hear that somebody’s reaching out, trying to help,” said fourth-generation fisherman Joe Mantua, 43. “The only thing that I have a problem with is, you know, it’s a Band-Aid. Without income coming in, how do you repay a loan? That’s the only thing I’m apprehensive of.”
The commercial Dungeness crab fishery was to have opened in coastal waters south of the Mendocino County line on Nov. 15, and north of Point Arena, on Dec. 1.
But the opening was delayed for what the industry initially thought might be a few weeks because of an unusually large and persistent bloom of algae that produces a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which can accumulate in shellfish and other wildlife. The domoic acid problem also closed the year-round commercial rock crab fishery. That fishery is based mostly in southern counties and its closure did not have a significant effect on the North Coast.
While crabs eventually metabolize domoic acid and clear it from their systems, state health officials have yet to open the commercial Dungeness season because test specimens are still showing levels above the federal safety threshold of 30 parts per million.
Results out of Bodega Bay this month show levels have generally fallen to acceptable levels, except for two crabs collected last week that were just above the threshold. Test crabs out of Fort Bragg show levels higher than others on the North Coast, though levels there have generally fallen since testing began.
Officials say they will not consider opening the crab fishery until all ports test clean for two consecutive weeks.
Some observers said that step could happen by the start of next month, but those who go out and drop their pots could see very little return, particularly given the onset of breeding season, when the crustaceans are less likely to bite.
Many captains don’t even bother this late in the season, and by this time would be putting their crab traps away.
The continued closure only deepens what, by December, already was extensive impact, as crabbers and their deckhands saw the most profitable weeks of the season pass. Crab anglers make the majority of their income between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when holiday demand is strong.
By January, estimated losses out of Bodega Bay — home to one of the North Coast’s largest crab fleets — were above $4 million, according to economic injury reports submitted by about half the roughly 90 commercial berth holders at Sonoma County-run marinas, county staffers said.