Crab Disaster Could Reflect Long-Term Trend

A statehouse fisheries committee has been told that toxic algae blooms and impacts to the Dungeness crab fishery probably reflect long-term trends.

The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture reviewed the causes, effects and management processes of the toxic algae situation at an Aug. 10 statehouse hearing.

Algae blooms and the associated presence of the domoic acid toxin drastically delayed the state’s 2015 to 2016 Dungeness crab season. The loss of several months of crabbing led to requests for federal disaster assistance.

Senator Mike McGuire, the joint committee’s chairman, reported that the crab season netted $37.6 million in total value for fishermen. That result is better than expected and is beyond the standard that automatically triggers a disaster declaration.

But McGuire said many fishermen are bearing significant income losses and the federal government has been slow to react with a disaster determination.

“It’s disheartening that the only thing we’ve heard from the Department of Commerce, which is charged with declaring a disaster, are crickets,” he continued.

McGuire added that the department has “finally initiated the determination process” but it could take several months.

He highlighted the “bright points” of the situation — there were no reports of illness due to domoic acid and McGuire credited state agencies and the fishing industry with working together to “make sure the public was protected.”

As the hearing progressed, it became clear that the effort may have to be repeated at some point because warm ocean water temperatures that encourage algae blooms are persisting.

Though ocean temperatures are down from the peak of an El Niño pattern, Dr. Raphael Kudela, professor of ocean health at the University of California Santa Cruz, reported that water temperatures are still three to four degrees above normal.

McGuire noted that warmer ocean temperatures are being described as a trend in news reports. “The question will be, is this California’s new normal?” he asked.

“We are seeing these long-term trends and everything that we’ve seen is consistent with the California current being in this warm phase,” Kudela responded. “We’re already into the third year of fairly warm conditions and unusual blooms — my personal opinion is that three years in a row is basically the new normal.”

Noting the warmer water temperatures are persisting beyond the El Niño phase, he added, “Everything is consistent with this being a type of pattern that we’re going to see into the future.”

Kudela added that although near future algae blooms probably won’t be as widespread as seen in 2015, recent water toxin readings in Trinidad, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara are “consistent with what we saw last year also” and “conditions are generally right” for toxin production.

Tim Sloane, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the crabbing season that ended in mid-July did yield income, but “I’ve been hearing from my members that that good fortune isn’t exactly spread out equally across the fleet.”

Explaining that “some of our guys never got out of the red and some of our guys ended up with decent seasons,” Sloane said the need for disaster relief is acute in some cases.

“One of the problems was that guys were losing crew, losing vessels, losing homes before the season ever started — they never got a chance to fish,” he continued.

Summarizing the hearing’s takeaways, McGuire said that in addition to supporting a federal disaster declaration, the joint committee will work with the fishing industry to push for consideration of issuing advisories in some areas instead of total fishery closures.

The committee will also support enhanced forecasting of upcoming toxin events, early testing, and uniform safety and closure standards among West Coast states.

McGuire also called for creating a budget to pay fishermen for collecting crab samples, an effort that was done on a volunteer basis last season.