Disaster loans opened to California’s Dungeness crab fishermen, businesses

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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.

Mantua, whose boat, Haida Queen, is among the largest crab vessels in port, estimated his first two months’ gross losses above $250,000. The revenue would have supported two deckhands and covered tens of thousands of dollars invested in advance of the season for new crab pots, ropes, buoys and safety gear. He said he probably would try to transfer that debt to an SBA loan, at lower interest.

But Stan Carpenter, president of the Fisherman’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, said he wasn’t sure his folks couldn’t do better with a bank loan.

“I don’t know how many people (will apply), to tell you the truth.” Carpenter said.

“It’s not free money,” said Steve Anello, who is among those facing crushing losses in the absence of any income from crab this season.

But given the comparative rate of his credit cards, he said, “I’m gonna try and get it, and see what we can do.”

The disaster loans are intended to help cover overhead costs like fixed debt, payroll and other bills that have grown increasingly difficult for fishermen and others to pay, SBA spokesman Mark Randle said.

Qualified businesses might include those which sell ice, fuel, gear or other supplies to crabbing vessels; boatyards, marinas, shipping interests or processors, the SBA said.

No collateral will be needed for the first $25,000, SBA representatives said. The agency will seek to secure loans above $25,000 when possible, but larger loans may still be approved even without collateral, depending on other factors, they said.

Randle urged anyone who thinks they might benefit to apply and decide later if they want to follow through with it.

It does not appear that deckhands, who often work as contracted employees, would qualify for the business loans. Those workers comprise a group that is among the most desperate amid the crab closure.

State and federal officials also are seeking a federal emergency declaration that would expand access to loans, grants and retraining assistance.

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For anglers and affected businesses: To apply for a disaster loan, visit https://disasterloan.sba.gov/ela or contact the SBA Customer Service Center at (800) 659-2955 or disastercustomerservice@sba.gov.

SBA representatives also will be circulating through coastal fishing communities over the next three weeks, staffing Disaster Loan Outreach Centers that will enable would-be borrowers to get one-to-one help.

Local centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Feb. 19 and Feb. 22 in Sonoma County, at the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District, Burke Room, 510 Highway 1 in Bodega Bay.

In Mendocino County, an outreach center will be set up from Feb. 16 to 18 at the Salmon Trollers Marketing Association, 19292 South Harbor Drive, in Fort Bragg. The center will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17, and from 8 a.m. to noon Feb. 18.

Completed applications should be mailed to: U.S. Small Business Administration, Processing and Disbursement Center, 14925 Kingsport Road, Fort Worth, TX 76155.

The filing deadline is Nov. 2.

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

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