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Tough Seasons for California Crabbers


The recent crab season in California was abysmal, to say the least.

Epic neurotoxin levels found in Dungeness and rock crabs forced state officials to close fisheries for months instead of weeks, crippling one of the state’s most lucrative fishing industries and leaving fishermen in California’s Northern and Central coasts unable to make a living.

Boats loaded with new fishing gear and crab pots sat in harbors such as Bodega Bay and Monterey. Boat owners have had to lay off crewmembers, who left to find work elsewhere or collect unemployment.

In Crescent City, a small Northern California town of fewer than 8,000 people, the community has been hosting fundraisers to help struggling crabbers. The city has one of the largest landings for Dungeness crab.

Angel Cincotta, who owns the Alioto-Lazio Fish Company on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf with her two sisters, told an NBC Bay Area affiliate that they have had to assuage customers’ concerns about the product they were selling.

“Crabs are currently coming out of Washington and Alaska, out of certified clean waters, so they’re safe to eat,” she told NBC.

The neurotoxin also affected rock crab season in Santa Barbara, one of the state’s biggest ports for rock crab fishing. The rock crab season, which runs all year, was delayed for months in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

“Thousands of Californians are dependent on healthy a crab fishery, and this year we have faced a disaster,” said State Sen. Mike McGuire, chairman of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. “Our magnificent and iconic crab fishery has gone from abundant to scarcity. And after a lousy salmon season, our fishery boats sit idle. Crabbers are struggling to make ends meet.”

McGuire represents Senate District 2, one of California’s largest senate districts, that encompasses seven counties stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. That is roughly 40 percent of the California coastline, and includes major ports for Dungeness crab.

“(Crabbing) has been part of the fabric of our communities, and Dungeness crab is a top tier in the commercial fish harvest in California,” McGuire said.

Annual landings of crabs in California are worth $60 million and can reach $90 million in peak years, he said.

But the latest numbers show $33.3 million in landings in California so far, about 45 percent of the five-year average.

“Imagine trying to make it on 45 percent of your income and still pay your rent, your car and boat payments,” McGuire said. “We are starting to see deep struggling set in in ports across California, and there is significant concern ahead.”

The Dungeness crab season, which was supposed to start Nov. 15, was delayed for months due to high levels of Domoic acid discovered in the crabs. The high levels of the algae-generated neurotoxin, which can cause vomiting, seizures and, in extreme cases, coma and death when consumed in high levels, were caused by the combination of the “warm blob” and El Nino interacting with coastal upwelling, said Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean science at UC Santa Cruz who has led a team of researchers to study the growing algae blooms.

“We have blooms most years, although they are not usually so dramatic,” he said.

Based on national/international regulations, high levels are anything over 30 ppm in the viscera (the crab butter), or 20 ppm in the meat, but the levels seen last year were in the hundreds of ppm, with a rock crab from Santa Barbara at 1,000 ppm, Kudela said.

“That would definitely hospitalize you, and the known mortalities from Prince Edward Island were due to consumption of shellfish with hundreds of ppm,” he said.

While scientists didn’t see a big bloom in the spring, they have seen a gradual increase throughout the spring and summer and suggest that there may have a big bloom in the next few months, or at least a continuation of this increase in cells and toxin, Kudela said.

“What that means for this year is that we will quite likely have high levels of toxins in some of the “hotspots” (Monterey, Santa Barbara, etc.) this autumn, and that the (domoic acid) is probably continuing to load up the ecosystem,” he said. “We think that crabs get really toxic when we have blooms that are around for a prolonged period with a lot of toxin accumulating in the benthic environment. It’s quite possible that will happen again this year given the prolonged, steadily increasing toxicity.”

The multi-million dollar question is whether there will be a local impact, and for a short period, or whether it will accumulate as it did last year and cause more catastrophic impacts, Kudela said. “Our best guess right now is that crabs will continue to be toxic this autumn, at least in some locations,” he said. “We are hoping that the bloom/toxin won’t spread over the whole coast again this year, but it’s still possible, particularly given the steady increase in toxicity through the spring/summer.”

Meanwhile, state officials opened the season for Dungeness in the spring, but by then the damage had been done. Most of the good crab fishing was gone since fishermen weren’t allowed to catch crabs in the lucrative months of December and January.

Two-thirds of Dungeness crab in California are consumed in a very short window, mainly during Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chinese New Year and New Year’s Day.

Preliminary estimate of Dungeness crab landings (pounds and dollars) through May show that fishermen caught nearly 5.8 million pounds of Dungeness crab worth close to $18 million in the state, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Crescent City, whose season didn’t open until May, landed a paltry 145,914 pounds of Dungeness crab worth $431,360.

In comparison, Crescent City crabbers in 2013 reportedly netted more than 11 million pounds of crab worth more than $30 million.

“The impact has been catastrophic,” McGuire said. “I’ve been hearing from crabbers who have been selling off their commercial permits and their boats and losing their homes. They’re turning to government assistance and food banks to put food on the table for their kids.”

Several months ago, the joint committee put together a letter requesting Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a statewide emergency that would kick in low-interest loans to help California crabbers.

Brown signed the emergency declaration and advanced it to the Department of Commerce.

According to Brown, the direct impact loss from the closure is at least $48.3 million, an estimated 71 percent of the total commercial value of Dungeness crab in the state.

“And we continue to wait to see if the feds will declare an emergency, and I ‘gotta tell you, time is of the essence,” McGuire said. “Despite the fact that we opened the season, struggle has set in for thousands of working families across this state. These crabbers can’t wait any longer for assistance. This historical closure has brought devastation to many of our communities.”

There has been some help. The US Small Business Administration under its own authority offered low-interest federal disaster loans to California small businesses that have suffered financial losses from the delay in crab season.

As of Aug. 1, the SBA approved 71 loans totaling more than $3.7 million to help ease economic hardship for fishermen and affected business owners, said Gary Colton, public information officer for SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

Another bright spot in the season’s suspension was a newfound partnership between crabbers and the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine on a crab gear retrieval project.

Northern California crabbers and Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association have collected roughly 1,500 lost crab pots off Eureka, Trinidad, Crescent City, Bodega Bay, and San Francisco coastal waters, said Jennifer Renzullo, field manager for the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project.

The project, which started in Humboldt and Del Norte counties and extended to San Francisco, is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program.

The money is used to pay fishermen for each recovered trap and in turn, fishermen’s associations sell back the crab pots to the original owner for $75. Profits go into recovering more lost gear in the future, according to UC Davis.

“Economically, the fishermen were hit hard by the domoic acid closure; this is their livelihood,” said Renzullo, who is based in Eureka. “It was hard for them, but we were able to provide some employment through this retrieval program. They were able to make a little bit of money during the delay. I think it was helpful on some level, at least for a handful of guys.”


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