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California’s crab fleet awaits share of $200 million in disaster relief

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The North Coast fishing fleet has welcomed some rare good news out of Washington, D.C., where the congressional budget deal reached last week included disaster relief funds intended to offset losses from the ill-fated commercial Dungeness crab season of three years ago.

But just how much help may be on the way is uncertain and could remain so for some time. There’s bureaucracy involved, and the wheels of government often turn slowly for fishermen seeking aid.

The process and payouts “may be done by the end of the year,” Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association President Lorne Edwards said. “I wouldn’t bet on it though.”

The $200 million in disaster relief included in the bill signed by President Donald Trump would cover nine West Coast fishery disasters, all declared more than a year ago, as well as new ones resulting from Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year.

Coastal California lawmakers had at one point sought nearly $140 million in relief alone for those impacted by the 2015-16 closure of the Northern California crab fishery. Their request was made when it appeared the entire season could be lost over a closure linked to a naturally occurring and potentially deadly neurotoxin.

The season eventually did open, but only after an unprecedented 4½-month delay that lasted through the lucrative Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day markets that account for the majority of fresh crab sales from the region each year. Many fishermen faced financial ruin at the time, with little relief in store from the state’s beleaguered, drought-ravaged salmon fishery.

Now, with the money finally earmarked, federal officials have to decide how to divvy up the relief among different states — California, Washington, Alaska, Florida and the territories of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — and among the designated fisheries.

Then various agencies will have to develop a process to determine who gets what, said Randy Fisher, executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which would oversee that step for California and other West Coast states.

“The good news is we can get the money out really fast,” once those decisions are made, Fisher said. Relief grants will be based on historic income, landings and other readily available data, he said.

But he wouldn’t even guess how long it would take the National Marine Fisheries Service to take the first step and divide up the pot among the affected fisheries. Fishermen in the affected regions have been waiting years, in some cases, for help.

“We’re getting calls already from fishermen,” Fisher said. “They want to know when the check is coming, or if it’s on the way yet.”

Though the Dungeness crab industry rebounded mightily last year, the pain of the 2015-16 season lingers, particularly given continued challenges in the crab and, especially, salmon fisheries — traditionally the mainstays of the North Coast fishing industry.

Abnormally warm ocean conditions in 2015 contributed that year to a harmful algal bloom and resulting biotoxin threat that kept crab boats tied up for months.

“We were hurt pretty good during that time period,” said veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello, whose family runs Spud Point Crab Co. and is heavily invested in the local fishing industry. “We’re recovering a little bit, little by little. I know I used quite a bit of my savings at that time.”

The delayed crab harvest resulted in landings valued at $39.5 million direct to fishermen statewide, compared to $60 million during the two previous seasons. Last year’s catch came in at a whopping $72 million. The record 2011-12 harvest was worth $95.5 million at the dock.

In Bodega Bay, just under 2 million pounds of Dungeness crab valued at $6 million were landed during the 2015-16 season, compared with $10.3 million a year later. The ripple effect for fish processors, bait suppliers, marinas, trucking, restaurants and others multiplied the hit to the economy.

State and federal lawmakers representing the coastal region began working almost immediately to obtain some relief for the crab industry.

But it wasn’t until the final days of the Obama administration last January that then-Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker declared a fishery disaster for 2015-16 commercial Dungeness and rock crab, along with eight other tribal and commercial fisheries in California, Washington and Alaska.

And it took Congress until last week to allocate disaster funding to cover the disasters, as well those related to the August and September hurricanes.

Mike Lucas, founder of North Coast Fisheries, a prominent fish-processing company that will be eligible for relief, said he’s grateful the money came through at all.

“I think the general public thinks that once a federal disaster is declared that something’s being done to help the industry,” he said, “but most of the time that’s not the case.”

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, credited coastal legislators with ensuring fishery disaster relief remained part of the funding negotiations in Washington.

“Two hundred (million dollars) is not what everyone was asking for,” Oppenheim said, meaning the overall request amounted to a far higher sum. “It’s still a lot to squeeze out of this Congress, and it’s certainly going to go far in patching over a lot of the damage that was done by the closure.”

The timing is good for those who fish from Bodega Bay, where Dungeness crab have been meaty but scarce this year. The season that started Nov. 15 wrapped up for most boats back in January, though it doesn’t close officially until June 30, Edwards said.

“The price was really good, so we did OK,” Anello said. “But it died off really fast here.”

Some fishermen have gone north to better hunting grounds, including Anello’s son, Mark, who is fishing from Crescent City, he said.

Commercial fishing is a grueling, highly cyclical endeavor in the best of times, but drought, a changing environment, regulation and other factors have made it increasingly challenging in recent years.

After the collapse of the California salmon fishery a decade ago closed the sport and commercial seasons throughout the state and most of Oregon in both 2008 and 2009, Congress appropriated $170 million in disaster relief funds that was distributed over a two-year period.

Edwards, president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, recalled that as “a long process” that was ultimately ironed out, though not very satisfactorily as far as he was concerned, he said. And while the Commerce secretary extended the fishery disaster into a third year, no additional funding was released.

Fisher said anyone who can demonstrate a loss in the current relief cycle can hope to claim some aid, though having to divide up the funding among multiple disasters adds to the complexity.

“There’s certainly more damages than the amount of money that’s been appropriated,” Lucas said.

The funding “has to go a really long way, so obviously people will get a little piece of what they lost, is what it will come down to,” he said. “But something’s better than nothing, and any help is better than no help, right?”

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

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