Scientists and lawmakers foresee grim outlook for California’s ocean fisheries

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With the wait underway for federal aid that might help idled fishermen amid the unprecedented closure of California’s commercial Dungeness crab season, scientists and lawmakers assembled at the state capitol Thursday to grapple with other looming hardships ahead for those who make their living on the seas.

Between drought, the increasing warmth and acidity of ocean waters and other factors that have disrupted conditions and wildlife habitat, the outlook is overwhelmingly grim, presenters said at an annual forum of the joint legislative Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture.

“Something’s going on in the ocean, and it’s not right, and it doesn’t fit our historical understandings,” California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham told members of the committee, led by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg.

Bonham noted stretches of coastline suddenly barren of sea urchins, while tropical sea snakes and other warm water species are plying the waters off the California coast. The prolonged algal bloom and resulting neurotoxin that has shut down the state’s commercial crab season is among numerous anomalies that are growing increasingly apparent, Bonham said.

“This should be an … alarm to the general public to stay aware and engaged in this ecological change that’s going on in the ocean,” Bonham said.

Commercial fishermen, especially those on the North Coast, are all too aware of the impacts, having come off a dismal salmon season last summer. The second blow was the postponement of the crab season over human health concerns presented by a naturally occurring neurotoxin called domoic acid that has persisted in a massive algae bloom off the West Coast.

What’s worse, said Clarissa Anderson, an assistant researcher at UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences, is the record levels of domoic acid follow an overall rise in the neurotoxin since a shift in conditions observed in 1998.

“There have been a few dips in there, but in the last five, six years, we start to see an unprecedented level every year,” Anderson said.

Given the band of warm water recorded along most of the North American coast in the past year or two, plus increased domoic acid and attendant wildlife impacts, Anderson said, “we could be seeing some kind of ecosystem change that may be lasting. Long lasting.”

The bleak forecast came as state officials moved late Thursday to open the recreational Dungeness crab fishery south of Point Reyes National Seashore.

The continued closure of the state’s $60 million commercial Dungeness fishery, meanwhile, already accounts for an estimated loss of $48 million in foregone catch for fishermen, with overall loses as high as $250 million when including the impact on related industries like fish processing, restaurants and groceries, McGuire and other state officials said.

Most if not many commercial skippers have given up on crab fishing this year as the lucrative holiday season as passed. This time of the year they would normally be preparing their vessels for summer fisheries, including King salmon.

But several witnesses Thursday forecast what most in the industry already have anticipated: a collapse, or near collapse, of key salmon runs in the state is expected to restrict fishing opportunities severely this year.

Experts say the delayed impact of five years of drought is now reaching its peak in salmon runs, which have withered in California because of poor reproduction in drought-starved creeks and rivers.

Where the state’s commercial salmon harvest was worth $52 million in 2013, it fell to $31 million in 2014 and is expected, based on preliminary figures, to be half of that last year, McGuire said.

This year looks to be worse, he said.

“I cannot say this more bluntly,” McGuire said. “We are facing a fishery disaster here in California, and families who have relied on the mighty Pacific for their livelihood are on the brink.”

His comments were a clear message to the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, where officials are considering a request by Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a fishery disaster, a move that would make anglers and others affected by the crab closure eligible for financial help.

But even assuming a declaration is made, any aid depends on the willingness of Congress to appropriate funds, Bonham said.

A declaration “is not a slam dunk for funds,” said Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, the committee’s vice chairman.

But “I think it’s important to know that we have been working on this since the beginning,” Wood said, “since we knew there was going to be a closure.”

In an interview Thursday, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he expected months of work on the part of California’s congressional delegation will enable the declaration to come more expeditiously than it otherwise might have. Federal officials often take months to make such decisions.

“I think we’ve seen this coming for some time, and my hope is that some of that normal processing time can be shortened significantly,” Huffman said.

A bill has been drafted to appropriate money for disaster relief, he said. Given that a disaster declaration is made by the Secretary of Commerce, that legislation could be acted on quickly or advance through the ordinary and more prolonged budgeting process, he said.

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

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