Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – The results of recent algae toxin tests have sparked fears of another delayed Dungeness crab season on the North Coast.
The potential for delay of the upcoming season was explored along with several other fisheries challenges at an Oct. 27 hearing held by the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture.
The season usually starts in early December in the North Coast area and mid-November in central areas. Pre-season tests of Dungeness crab samples for domoic acid, a naturally-occurring algae toxin, yielded encouraging results until late September.
Dr. David Mazzara of the state’s Department of Public Health said he was “hoping they were going to stay that way and I could bring good news to the committee.” But he added, “Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” and proceeded to break some worrying news.
Areas of the North Coast have yielded crab samples that tested about the 30 parts per million “action level” of domoic acid, he said.
Four crabs in the Crescent City area tested above the action level, three of them collected on Oct. 13. Two crabs caught on Sept. 29 and Oct. 18 in the Eel River estuary area tested above the level.
Two crabs from the Fort Bragg area collected on Oct. 8 were also above the safety level.
Crabs sampled in areas south of Point Arena have all tested safe.
The North Coast test results are concerning, as domoic acid contamination drastically delayed the 2015 to 2016 Dungeness season and triggered a federal disaster declaration.
Preparation for another delay is in effect. One option to avoid a delay is to have the fishery operate under evisceration orders. Mazzara said domoic acid is concentrated in the internal organs and rarely contaminates the meat of crabs above safety levels.
Under an evisceration order scenario, the state would require processors to remove the guts of crabs and spiny lobsters, another affected species, and “allow them to sell and then put those commodities into the marketplace” after testing, Mazzara continued.
It would be a first-time process and it would “take quite a bit of work and logistics” to implement, he said.
“But we are willing to take the time and effort to see if that’s a viable option for the state,” he continued.
Senator Mike McGuire, the joint committee’s chairman, asked how long such an order’s rule-making would take and was told the timeframe is uncertain.
“The reason I ask is, the window for opening up the season is coming up pretty quick,” McGuire said. He asked if the process would be pursued with the goal of being able to “give a green light” to the season.
Mazzara said the aim is to do it “as soon as possible so we could operate under that order.” He added that doing so would not be “the best of circumstances.”
Craig Schuman, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s marine region manager, said there will be “a number of site-specific challenges to overcome” to allow evisceration orders. The orders would “hurt the business model” of sellers of live whole crabs, he continued, so “it’s also a matter of hearing from different sectors of the fleet.”
McGuire noted that the affected areas are “anomalies,” as the central areas have tested clean. “Hopefully, that’s what they are – anomalies – and not what the standard’s going to be for this coming season,” he said.
Another round of samples has been collected and Mazzara said some of them were submitted to his department’s lab that morning.
The domoic acid situation is part of a larger trend of troubling developments affecting fisheries and the ocean.
Introducing the hearing, McGuire said that “California’s robust fisheries are now in a state of crisis” and he described coastal communities as being “threatened by changing conditions that we are all too familiar with.”
Salmon, sardine and urchin fisheries are “all likely candidates now for official disaster declarations” in addition to the existing Dungeness declaration, McGuire continued.