Note: The following is one of several stories about the crab and fisheries calamities.
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Mad River Union
SACRAMENTO– The chief of California’s fish and wildlife agency opened his testimony in quiet but forbidding tones last week.
“Something’s going on in the ocean and it’s not right,” Director Charlton Bonham of the Department of Fish and Wildlife warned at a hearing of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture in Sacramento.
He testified that menacing changes are altering both marine biology and ecology and the changes do not fit historical understandings of ocean behavior.
Bonham declared grimly, “This should be an exclamation alarm to the general public to stay aware and engaged in the ecological change going on in the ocean.”
He summarized the troubling progression:
• The department has closed the sardine fishery.
• A “marked decline” has hobbled market squid landings.
• Widespread and wasting disease in sea stars has led to the loss of most of that species.
• As a result of the kelp decline, most of the red urchin population has perished, moving from abundance to scarcity in just a few years. “Mile-long stretches of the North Coast [are] urchin barrens,” Bonham stated.
• Warm water species such as wahoo, a gourmet tropical and subtropical fish, “are showing up farther north in greater numbers than we have ever seen before.”
• There have emerged “very never-seen-before things like sea snakes washing up on Southern California beaches.”
• The salmon outlook remains unfavorable in the wake of last year’s drought-driven collapse.
Salmon fishermen should begin anticipating further restrictions on ocean catch, Bonham cautioned, because the department has already confirmed degraded stocks.
He explained, “It looks as though the 2015 escape numbers, meaning the fish going out, which harvests are tallied with for both the Sacramento and Klamath Falls chinook, are going to be below their target levels.”
The Sacramento winter run “really raises the existential threat of extinction,” he testified, because of the limited pool of cold water from Shasta needed for the temperature management that is crucial to species survival.
Asked to address the fateful nexus between crabs and salmon – many crab fishermen are salmon fishermen – Bonham apologized for his many “spoiler alerts,” as he called them at last week’s hearing.
Given the conjunction of factors warming the Pacific, such as El Niño and The Blob – a warm water mass from Mexico to Alaska – toxic contamination generated by algal blooms may spread well beyond crabs and urchins, raising sinister unknowns, Bonham predicted warily.
“Why not more and more species one right after another?” he asked. “I’m thinking down the line, ‘What if these things keep happening? What will we do if there are two years like this or three years like this or four or five years like this?’ I think that’s a policy discussion we should start to frame now.”
Far-reaching research is needed to shore up lagging science, Bonham, lawmakers and industry witnesses agreed.