Fishermen urge slower, safer start to crab season

A lack of support among fishermen to open up specific sections of the California coast to commercial crab fishing led the Dungeness Crab Task Force Tuesday to recommend waiting for statewide clearance over health risks, even though it means more potential harm to their businesses.

The crab fishing season has been delayed along the California coast for months due to high levels of domoic acid found in Dungeness crabs. Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin that can cause vomiting and diarrhea in mild cases and permanent short-term memory loss or even death in severe ones, according to the California Department of Public Health. It is formed by algae blooms and is known to accumulate in shellfish.

During a conference call Tuesday with members of the task force’s executive committee, two options were endorsed to salvage what some fishermen call a lost season: Waiting for a statewide opening, and, alternatively, allowing the state to open the commercial crab fisheries by management zone, which in a normal year, allows fisheries to open in the southern part of the state before fisheries in the north.

One of the main factors cited in how to open the season was the issue of public safety. Though no cases of crab-related illnesses are believed to have been reported, Tony Anello, owner of the Spud Point Crab Company in Bodega Bay, acknowledged public safety — and perception —  remained a key factor:

“I’m concerned about what ramifications we would have if someone in the public would get sick.”

BIll Carvalho, executive committee member and president of Carvalho Fisheries in McKinleyville along the Humboldt coast, also expressed his reservations to open up sections at at time:

“The smaller the area that the state deems safe, the less confidence the public will have to consume those crabs. The larger the opening the more confident the consumers will have to consume their product.”

Carvalho acknowledged, though, the economic impact on his and other businesses:

“Everyone is hurting. … Everyone wants to go fishing.”

A lack of support among fishermen to open up sections at a time led to consensus to recommend waiting for a statewide clearance, even though it means more potential harm to their business.

On Feb. 9, Governor Jerry Brown requested a federal disaster declaration for the state’s $90 million crab fishing industry. The delay has already cost the California economy more than $48 million, according to Brown.

A decision from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration is awaited as to whether a federal disaster will be declared.

Pending legislation could deliver federal funds if a disaster is declared to anyone who can demonstrate a financial burden, though some fishermen worried that federal relief would arrive too late.

A decision on when and how to open commercial crab fishing season could come this week or next from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.