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Posted on July 29, 2016 by

California’s Dungeness Crab Industry Almost Cracked Apart (But Didn’t)

By:  SEAFOODNEWS.COM [SFGate] By Scott Lucas – July 29,2016

Lori French, the daughter-in-law of a crab fisherman, the wife of another, and the mother of a third, placed two large bowls on a table. The one labeled “California” sat empty. The other, reading “Oregon,” was filled to the brim with bright-lavender-and-orange Dungeness crabs.

It was early February, the night before the annual hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture at the state capitol, and French, who’s the president of a nonprofit called Central Coast Women for Fisheries, had organized a banquet that was part festive crab feed, part bare-knuckled lobbying effort.

For the benefit of her attendees, who included elected officials, bureaucrats, scientists, and fishermen and their families, she had shipped hundreds of pounds of Dungeness down from Oregon, where, unlike in California, the annual crab season was already under way. She believed that state officials were being too cautious in prohibiting commercial crabbing due to an outbreak of toxic domoic acid, an embargo that had decimated the fortunes of some 1,800 crab-fishing captains and crews in California. Domoic acid, she pointed out, had neither killed nor caused a reported sickening of anyone so far this year. Washington State had let commercial fishermen on the water. Why not reopen the waters in California?

Top view of a steamed Dungeness crab on wooden server board with herbs and spices ready to eat.

It wouldn’t be that easy. The California Department of Public Health requires scientists to confirm two consecutive clean tests for potentially harmful toxins in locally caught crabs. Since the fall, at least one of every two tests had reported unacceptably high levels of domoic acid, which can poison all kinds of sea life and can sicken and potentially kill humans. By the time I caught up with French again in mid-March, several weeks after the banquet, the state’s crabbers were still out of luck. One recent test had come back clear, French told me over the phone. With one more clean bill of health, her husband and hundreds of other fishermen working the coastline from Santa Barbara up to Crescent City would have been able to drop pots and catch crabs. But when the subsequent test results came back, they weren’t good: A crab had been found with domoic acid levels in its organs at 38 parts per million, 8 above the cutoff level. French was devastated: “Our last bit of hope was just jerked away,” she said.

Through her organization, French knows fishermen and their families across California. The day before our chat, she’d spoken to one fisherman whose house was on the verge of foreclosure. Today she’d talked to another who had found a job in Washington but needed $200 to travel there. Despite fundraising dinners held in port towns along the coast, need outpaced money. French was amassing a long waiting list of fishing families requiring assistance. Pain crept into her voice when she talked about the food banks that had sprung up at the docks: “We’re the people who provide food, and we don’t have any.”

The Frenches are better off than many of the families for whom crab fishing is a way of life. Lori’s father-in-law bought agricultural land on the Central Coast in the ’70s. After he was killed coming back into the Morro Bay harbor in 1987, the farm—on which they grow avocados—passed to her and her husband, Jeff. Jeff has been in the fishing business since he was 16, and the Frenches now own two boats: the Nadine, a 53-footer, and the 42-foot Langosta II. But with the boats both idle, the Frenches had to rely solely on their other sources of income. They sell eggs to pay the grocery bills, and Lori works part-time as an office manager for a construction firm. Now they were considering putting the back bedroom up on Airbnb.

After we talked, French sent me an email. Make sure, she wrote, to emphasize that nobody had gotten sick this year from eating crabs. In fact, the Frenches knew some fishermen who had eaten Dungeness just the other day and had no problems. They would never want to sell something unsafe, she said, and she was sure that the crabs along California’s coast were harmless. “We’re not Chipotle,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine any Northern California food industry more local and sustainable—call it ocean-to-table—than crab fishing. A crew of guys (they’re almost always guys) on a boat drop big metal pots rigged with bait—squid, mackerel, maybe clams—into the water directly off our coast. Then, a day later, they come back and lug the pots up, loaded with crawling, snapping Metacarcinus magister, bound for markets and restaurants mere hours (or minutes) away from the point of capture.

But crab fishing is sustainable only if the ocean waters that the crabs swim in aren’t poisonous—and for five months of the 2015–16 crabbing season, they were. A vast toxic algae bloom, one of the largest ever recorded, produced enough domoic acid to effectively kill most of the season, and although the crab fishery finally did open, an ominous shadow had fallen over the entire coast. And not just for people who rely on crabbing for their livelihood: The great crab shutdown of 2016 was one of those events that inspire ominous thoughts in many coastal dwellers about the fragility of our food supply and the vulnerability of our producers. We’ve gone in just a few short years from theorizing about what might happen someday in a changing climate to grappling with the harsh realities of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch in which human impacts on the environment can no longer be ignored. This is a story about the instability of the seafood we eat and the degenerative health of the water it comes from. But mostly it’s a story about people who fish for crab and what happened the year they couldn’t.

Re-printed with permission of SeafoodNews.com