Should California’s four-year drought break, causing rivers to run, next year’s crab season could be worse than the 2015-2016 season. The industry has, so far, lost at least $48 million in revenue for crab fishermen statewide, according to information presented at the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture hearing last Thursday, April 28 in Sacramento.

The reason is the unprecedented large algal bloom that had an “unusual length and intensity,” according to Dr. Raphael Kudela, Professor of Ocean Health at University California of Santa Cruz. Kudela explained how California’s fisheries are fortunate to have algal blooms, making them rich in nutrients. However, when the winds didn’t move those nutrients in the usual patterns during 2014-2015, the bloom grew to an unusually large size. The scientists learned the algal bloom loves nutrients; as it digests nutrients, its toxicity — the level of the organism called pseudo-nitzschia — increases.

Pseudo-nitzchia is the organism responsible for the domoic acid accumulation in crabs, causing them to be poisonous for consumption. Eating crab tainted with domoic acid causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, which can lead to gastrointestinal issues like vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. In more serious cases, neurological symptoms appear such as dizziness, disorientation, loss of short-term memory, seizures and coma. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) said there were no reports of domoic acid poisoning due to the toxic algal bloom event that delayed the recreational and commercial crab seasons.

Kudela and his colleague, Dr. William Sydeman, senior scientist with the Farallones Institute Team, fear if this season is followed by enough rain to end the drought, the rivers will run, bringing rich nutrients to the ocean. The algal bloom will then feed off the nutrients and, according to Kudela, be 400 percent more toxic than it was this year.

There is a chance, however, that a La Nina weather pattern could be cool enough to make the algal bloom dissipate.

For now, its sit and wait, sort of.

Should 2016’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and 2017’s Chinese New Year’s — the most economically rewarding part of the crab season — be nonexistent, the state agencies responsible for the fisheries will have to be better prepared than they were last year, Senator Mike McGuire said.

McGuire wants the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), spearheaded by executive director Charlton Bonham, to create written protocols for crab monitoring and sampling, complete with scientific review; look into the 30 parts per million (ppm) level of toxicity established as the point of closure for a fishery as appropriate; and work on offering compensation to the crab fishermen who volunteered and spent their own time and money collecting crab samples for tests.

“This is not throwing stones,” McGuire told Bonham. “Who would have though we’d sit here today with parts of the coast still not open?”

McGuire also talked with CDPH, the Ocean Protection Council and the California Department of Fish and Game on Thursday. The three agencies have been working collaboratively with each other since December 2015 to ensure public safety while trying to get crabbers back to work.

“We don’t want to be caught flat footed,” McGuire said, should next year’s crab season be slated for disaster. “We are going to need additional resources.”

However, the most in need of resources are the crab fishermen, who have suffered months without work. Michael Lucas, president of the North Coast Fisheries, explained how the idle months have eaten into their bottom lines.

“Unlike fishers, we have to be at the ready,” Lucas said. “So we had to keep teams on payroll all the time or lose them to other industries. The domoic acid made us all concerned. We made sure public health came first. We sat idle for what we thought would be days. Then days turned into weeks. And weeks into months. All the while we were still paying employees.”

Lucas explained how California traditions came and went. Crab-free Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were served. But worse, Lucas said were the crab feeds that are so important to the communities, stumbling through profitless or worse, not happening at all.

“These are often the hugest fundraisers of the year for many organizations,” Lucas said.

Relief for the fishermen is unlikely to come until the season closes on June 30 for the south and July 15 for the north, according to Bonham. Federal relief depends upon disaster declaration from Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. On February 9, Governor Jerry Brown wrote to Pritzker asking for declarations of a fisheries resource disaster and commercial fishery disaster. Bonham reported that Pritzker “appreciated the submission” but required the full data set of financial loss for the season as “due diligence” before she could make a determination.

At the time Brown wrote to Pritzker, the crab industry had already suffered a loss of $48.3 million, a 71 percent impact on the total economic value of the season. Bonham said a disaster is usually declared when the economic loss is equal to 80 percent of the value of the season.

“We are so sorry for your struggles,” McGuire told crabbers on Thursday. “We have never suffered prolonged delays as we have in the 2015-2016 season.”

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