Feds send $26 million relief for California crab fishery disaster

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Nearly $26 million of relief from the federal government is on its way to fishermen and women affected by the ill-fated commercial Dungeness crab season in the North Coast three years ago.

“I’m confident that checks will be in the mail for fisherman and fishing businesses hopefully by the new year,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the 700-member Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

Oppenheim voiced hope the $25.8 million — part of $200 million appropriated by Congress in February for nine West Coast fishery disaster areas and states affected by 2017 hurricanes — would be transferred in a month to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which will determine how and when funds will be distributed.

“They’ve done this before, and they do it well,” said Humboldt County fisherman Dave Bitts, 70, president of the federation. “I hope they set the ground rules soon. A lot of people were hurt by the disaster.”

The North Coast’s 2015-16 Dungeness and rock crab fishery season was declared last year by outgoing U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker as a disaster, one of nine areas in three states to have decreases in volume because of climate and ocean conditions.

High levels of domoic acid prompted the state to ban crabbing that season. The naturally produced neurotoxin has been linked directly to climate change, Oppenheim said.

“Warm waters facilitated the abnormally acute bloom of a toxic strain of algae,” he said.

Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg, 65, said it’s hard to say how much of an impact the funds will have on Sonoma County.

“It depends on where people put their money,” Ogg said. “I suppose in some indirect way it would help the county.”

Tony Anello, 69, a Bodega Bay skipper whose family depends on the fishery, struggled in the aftermath of the 2015-16 crab season. A fisherman since 1970, Anello wasn’t impressed by the amount of federal relief.

“It’s such a low amount,” he said. “But I hope it comes soon and holds us up before salmon season.”

It’s unclear whether any of the $25.8 million will go toward domoic acid research, but Oppenheim said with the smaller than expected amount, he’s mostly concerned with boosting coastal communities.

“I’m very, very glad to see some type of financial support for the fleet,” Ogg said. “I’m optimistic that everybody should get something to support them with these diminishing seasons we’ve had.”

Efforts by California lawmakers to bring federal disaster aid to North Coast fishermen were thwarted over the years. Last year, Reps. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, introduced legislation to send $117 million to the California commercial crab industry.

The year prior, before the season was declared a disaster, another $138 million relief bill introduced by Huffman and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, died in committee.

“For far too long, the North Coast has been waiting for this federal support to relieve the economic burden from several disastrous fishing seasons,” Huffman said in a statement.

Oppenheim said the fact that the funds took as long as they did to be approved is indicative of the “terrible safety net” for North Coast fishermen.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is putting together a framework for fishery insurance mirrored after crop insurance in the agriculture business.

“This experience has made it clear to me that we need to do something,” Oppenheim said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com.

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