Last year’s crab season officially declared a disaster

While it still might be a long-time coming, commercial crab fishermen could eventually receive federal disaster relief money for last year’s aborted season.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared the 2015-2016 California Dungeness crab and rock crab seasons a disaster, which clears the way for Congress to provide relief funds to crabbers and the businesses that serve the fishery.

The declaration, requested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, includes eight other salmon and crab fisheries in Alaska, California and Washington.

NOAA officials said in a statement:

“In recent years, each of these fisheries experienced sudden and unexpected large decreases in fish stock biomass or loss of access due to unusual ocean and climate conditions. This decision enables fishing communities to seek disaster relief assistance from Congress.”

The unusual conditions led to blooms of toxic algae that produced a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which was found at unhealthy levels inside the crabs and the fishing season was subsequently closed for five of the most productive months of the year.

After Wednesday’s disaster declaration, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, said she intends to re-introduce a bill that she and Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, authored last year that would, if approved, provide more than $138 million for disaster relief.

It would also provide $1 million for domoic acid sampling and monitoring and $5 million for research.

That bill, the Crab Emergency Disaster Assistance Act of 2016, failed to pass last year.

Speier said in a statement:

“I am relieved to learn that NOAA recognized the financial hardship fishermen suffered last year as a result of the five-month closure of the crab season. … It is now up to Congress to appropriate money to help these fishermen stay in business and pay off their debts.”

For the state’s fishermen, the relief can’t come fast enough.

Dave Bitts, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said:

“I would hope that some kind of appropriation passes. … A lot of people were hurt last year by what went down and it was certainly not any fisherman’s fault.”

Bitts, who skippers the commercial fishing boat Elmarue out of Eureka, said that somewhere between 300 and 500 boats fish for crab along California’s coast on any given year.