Crabbers to get federal relief

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT – The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has proposed a spending plan for federal Dungeness Crab disaster relief funding after taking input from fishermen, processors and charter boat operators.

The state’s 2015 to 2016 commercial Dungeness and rock crab seasons were declared as fisheries disasters after being drastically curtailed due to algae blooms and the domoic acid toxin they produced.

Approval of $28.8 million in federal relief funding was gained last June, with most of it covering Dungeness losses.

Based on guidelines from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and feedback from industry stakeholders, CDFW proposes that 89 percent of the relief funding be spent on “direct payments” to commercial fishermen, buyer/processors and sport charter boat operations.

The lingering presence of domoic acid blindsided the industry and the spending plan proposes the payments as a way to “help support struggling fishing families and communities that were not able to foresee and therefore plan for an unexpected fishery closure”

Designated by NOAA as being “at risk,” the state’s fishing communities will be able to better deal with debt through the relief funding, which will also help the communities “build resiliency.”

Ten percent of the relief allocation is proposed to be spent on “mitigation” – research and expansion of the infrastructure related to testing for domoic acid and monitoring algal blooms.

One percent of the funding would cover the administrative overhead of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (PSMFC), the multi-state agency that will approve a final spending plan.

Prior to submitting its proposal to the PSMFC on July 20, the state considered verbal feedback and 67 written comments. Included in the plan are various alternatives for dispersing the relief money and additional comments were heard during a July 18 webinar.

The main payment alternatives are splitting the relief equally among permit holders, weighting the payments according to the fishing “tiers” or numbers of crab traps used by fishermen and basing the payments on the difference between each fisherman’s past average of crab landings and those during the disaster year.

Using crab landings records as a basis has the advantage of being an accurate gauge of losses. But Christy Juhasz, a CDFW environmental scientist specializing in Dungeness management, said basing payments on the tier system has been supported by commenters.

“Distributing by the permits and the tier system might be less contentious because using landings criteria could hold up the process via people who appeal their landings receipt information,” she continued. “That’s something else to consider as we move forward and want to streamline this process.” Preliminary plans for the research and mitigation funding include improving the state Department of Public Health’s ability to test crabs for domoic acid before and during seasons.

“By increasing lab capacity we might be able to have a shorter turnaround time between when crabs are collected to the results, especially when we see problem areas persist and cause season delays,” Juhasz said. “We’d like to better understand the dynamics of the algae that produces the domoic acid toxin – how it affects Dungeness crab – as well.”

The next round of domoic acid tests will begin this fall. Fishermen will begin collecting crab samples for testing in mid-September, with an initial round of results emerging in early to mid-October.

Some of the webinar commenters recommended privatizing the testing process. An email from Eureka-based fisherman David Helliwell was read aloud and indicated that Humboldt State University (HSU) is interested in doing the tests but needs funding for specialized lab equipment.

Juhasz said that any lab testing for domoic acid would have to be federally-certified, which is the issue preventing HSU from participating.

Other types of research will also be funded through a competitive grant process, she added. Some commenters suggested using part of the research and mitigation funding to have a fishermen’s association coordinate communication on domoic acid-related delays.

Review of the spending plan will continue throughout this month, with determinations on how the payments will be distributed expected in September.



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