Shortened or eliminated fishing seasons are needed, but markets struggle to adjust
Fisherman’s Cove cafe, deli and bait shop offers restaurateur Gary Singh a slower paced life from the challenges of once running a fine-dining restaurant in the Bay Area, yet the Bodega Bay business still presents some challenges, namely the startling changes to the local fisheries, many of which have gone from thriving to suffering.
While local fisheries like Dungeness crab, other shellfish and salmon may ebb and flow, a combination of calamitous events have lead to curtailed Dungeness crab seasons and the complete closure of red abalone until 2021.
Increasingly warm waters, drastic reductions to the kelp forest, harmful algae blooms and more form what scientists and marine researchers are calling “the perfect storm,” a slew of events that are affecting local waters, ecosystems and fisheries.
“Environmental stressors included impacts from a toxic algae bloom off the Sonoma coast in 2011, a widespread sea star disease in 2013 that was followed by an explosion in the sea urchin population, and the warm water conditions that have persisted offshore since 2014,” an article on marine management from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife states.
This marine series of events has been trickling its way down to local restaurant owners, like Singh, as well as fishermen and seafood lovers alike.
While heaping plates of barbecue oysters and hot bowls of clam chowder keep coming out of the Fisherman Cove kitchen, Singh — who’s owned and operated the eatery since 2011, said the shortened crab season has impacted the business.
“This year our local crab season was cut short so we lost all of that and that definitely had an impact on the sales, to the availability of the local product and on costs, too,” Singh said.
Dungeness crab season for the Sonoma/Mendocino coast typically starts in November and goes until the end of June, however, due to an algae bloom that creates a toxic acid called Domoic acid, the season was closed in mid-April, according to Richard Ogg, a commercial fisherman who helps test crabs for acid in Bodega Bay.
While Domoic acid is a naturally occurring marine-based toxin that doesn’t cause harm to marine life it is harmful to humans.
With warmer ocean temperatures, more frequent algae blooms can occur and grow at a faster rate that creates higher levels of acid. Shellfish then accumulate higher levels of the toxin in their flesh. Eating shellfish with Domoic acid can cause vomiting, cramps, diarrhea and dizziness.
Ogg said if there is an amount of acid greater than 30 parts per million, then the crab is not good for consumption.
Consequently, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife had to cut short the crab season.
Time equals money
“The crab season was cut so we lost all of those three months,” Singh said. “Not only did it affect not being able to get the fresh catch, but all of the fishermen. If they’re not working, they have to wait until the salmon season ... and are out of work, and we were pretty slim.”
Singh, with Fisherman’s Cove, has two boats to fish for local product like crab.
He said in terms of sales, “I think we were impacted about 15%.”
According to an article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2015 Domoic acid-related closures led to a $100 million value decline in west coast Dungeness crab fisheries.
Ian Taniguchi, a senior environmental scientist for the marine region with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said due to this commercial loss, there have been talks on the possibility of getting disaster relief funding for the commercial Dungeness crab industry.
Ogg, who is also vice president of the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, has been fishing commercially near Sonoma County for 20 years and sells his product to the Tides Wharf & Restaurant in Bodega Bay.
Ogg’s main focus is in four fisheries: crab, Albacore tuna, salmon and black cod.
He said for this latest crab season his catch was about average to below average due to the drastically shortened season.
“It is a significant impact to fisherman and an unfortunate decision,” Ogg said. “First of all, some guys fish until June and a greater part of their income comes from that and it is difficult to make that up at the end of the year.”
He said the impact is also huge on buyers who often rely on the last two months of the season to get and sell product.
“Fisherman are impacted, buyers are impacted and consumers are impacted,” Ogg said.
Another shellfish impacted by Domoic acid is mussels.
This year the California Department of Public Health issued quarantine on the collection of mussels intended for human consumption to help prevent human cases of Domoic acid poisoning.
The quarantine is in effect from May 1 to Oct. 31.
Also affecting the shellfish and the fishery is an increasingly warmer climate.
Most recently a three-day heat wave in June and low tide caused a massive die-off of mussels on the Sonoma Coast as far north as Fort Bragg.
UC Davis researcher Jackie Sones told ABC7 news in a July 9 article, “We have seen smaller die-offs, but never a die-off to this extent.”
Sones estimated in the article that the mussel death was in the tens of thousands.
The other fishery that has been completely altered by the “perfect storm” of environmental factors is abalone.
“In 2011 we had a harmful algae growth in the Sonoma County coast in what is called a red tide … After that we saw an impact in the form of sea star death all along the coast. Sea stars are a predator for sea urchins and with the sea stars being lifted out, that correlated with an explosion in the purple sea urchin population,” Taniguchi said.
Taniguchi explained that a sea urchin’s main source of food is kelp.
With more sea urchins eating more kelp and with the other environmental stress factors, the size of the local kelp forest was reduced by 93%, thus affecting the abalone population that normally rely on kelp for food and shelter.
This sequence of events led to a drastic drop in abalone.
“That prompted us to curtail the (abalone) fishery and led to its closure,” Taniguchi said.
Not only is the season closed until 2021, but Taniguchi also pointed out if the season does reopen, then it may be curtailed depending on the status of its population recovery.
“We did have an economic assessment and it is estimated that it is at a $44 million loss,” Taniguchi said.
Additionally, an economic impact statement from the California Fish and Game Commission said the closure will cost an estimated $15 million to $25 million to businesses frequented by abalone divers, including hotels, campsites, restaurants and sports equipment rental shops in coastal towns where diving is popular.
Not only are industries and fishermen affected, but consumers are impacted, too.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a program that creates and updates science-based recommendations so businesses and consumers can make sustainable seafood choices, has a lengthy list of seafood choices to avoid.
It includes: Basa, Pacific cod, crab, Atlantic wild halibut, spiny lobster, Mahi Mahi, octopus, Orange Roughy, Pollack, Canadian and Atlantic salmon, Chinook salmon, coho salmon, sardines, sharks, shrimp, squid, swordfish, Albacore tuna, Bluefin tuna, Skipjack tuna and Yellowfin tuna.
According to the Seafood Watch, these species are best to avoid because they are “overfished, lack strong management or are caught or farmed in ways that harm other marine life or the environment.”
“People’s tastes for different things change over time,” said Brent Hughes a coastal ecologist and a biology professor at Sonoma State University. “For instance, canned sardines were big in the ’40s and ’50s.”
Due to overfishing, the sardine population was almost depleted and virtually all of Monterey’s canneries were closed down, which is why current programs like the aquarium’s Seafood Watch is an important and useful tool.
Good alternatives for the aforementioned list include: Farmed Branzino, Canadian Pacific cod, lingcod, U.S. spiny lobster, Canadian, Portuguese and Spanish octopus, wild oysters, Canadian salmon, Canadian wild and Honduras-farmed shrimp, snapper, Mexican squid, swordfish, tilapia and Rainbow and Steelhead trout.
To view the best options list, see the aquarium’s chart at its Seafood Watch website.
Confronting the problem
So what can be done to combat environmentally stressed out fisheries?
While there isn’t any easy two-step answer, there are a few practices and tips that can help.
“We’ve gone through a lot to make sure we do not deplete the resource,” Ogg said of Dungeness crab.
For example, Ogg uses crab fishing gear that helps streamline the measuring they have to do in determining which crabs can be kept and which can be thrown back.
He said it’s typically better to let smaller ones escape in order to keep the species sustainable and populated.
“There are escape rings that minimizes the amount of measuring we have to do,” Ogg said.
The stainless steel rings are 4.25 inches and sit in the rectangular crab trap pot. With this device the smaller ones can escape and allow for growth of the population.
“It’s another way to keep fisheries sustainable,” Ogg said. “We also put together a degradable cotton material on the pot.”
In terms of how to address the abalone issue, the answer is a bit more complicated, however, Hughes said aquaculture might be a good solution.
Hughes said there is currently a big push for shellfish aquaculture — the farming of fish and other seafood.
“The only place to find Abalone is at farms,” Hughes said.
He said another popular pick for farming has been tilapia and some species of salmon.
“It hasn’t been a big money maker,” Hughes said. However, he added it might start catching on as an alternative to fishing.
Anna’s Seafood, a seafood purveyor based out of Petaluma that comes to the Healdsburg Farmers Market each Tuesday, does offer aquaculture options. While they do offer local oysters from Point Reyes, many of their offerings are farmed in Greece.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, when good aquaculture practices are used it can have little environmental impact and when done correctly, aquaculture can help limit habitat damage and sometimes disease.
As for Singh, he said he has been focusing on taking advantage of the local salmon season in the absence of crab.
Singh said of his business, “I just wanted to do sea-to-table and I thought this was a great location for it.”