By: Mary Callahan, SeafoodNews.com
A historic delay in the 2015-16 Dungeness crab season reduced statewide commercial landings by more than a third this year and cut into gross sales off the boat by about 44 percent, according to preliminary figures from the state.
Bodega Bay, one of nine key commercial ports between Morro Bay and Crescent City, mirrored the sharp statewide downturn, with Dungeness landings down 37 percent from the previous season, to 1.8 million pounds, according to early calculations.
The figures, from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, offer the first postseason look at a grim year for the normally lucrative commercial Dungeness fishery — the state’s second-most valuable, worth about $60 million in most years.
Gross sales last season for the crab fleet topped $33 million, about 45 percent of the 5-year average, according to state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture. That figure could rise slightly once final numbers are in for July, the end of what is normally a seven and a half-month Dungeness catch.
Bodega Bay sales earned crab fishermen $5.8 million for the season, down 40 percent, the state reported. Fort Bragg landings were down 38 percent, with sales down 31 percent. San Francisco landings and sales slid 48 percent and 46 percent, respectively.
“Something is better than nothing, but we are not out of the woods,” said McGuire, who will convene a special hearing Wednesday in Sacramento to review the season, the push for federal relief and the outlook for next season.
The catch figures are likely to factor in the campaign to secure federal disaster money, though that effort, despite lobbying from California lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown, has languished in Washington.
There was speculation earlier in the year that the Department of Commerce might only consider declaring a fishery disaster once the season closed and the catch could be assessed. Even then, Congress would need to appropriate relief funds, a step that has not been taken. McGuire said late-season catch likely did little to erase the financial pain of the crabbing community.
“Thousands of Californians continue to struggle because of the significantly decreased landings,” he said.
California’s commercial Dungeness crab season was to have begun Nov. 15 in waters south of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line and on Dec. 1 north of Sonoma County. But it was put on hold amid tests of sample crabs showing an algae-produced neurotoxin called domoic acid at levels above federal safety thresholds.
The neurotoxin resulted from a prolonged and expansive bloom of toxic algae that caused widespread health issues among ocean wildlife last year, infiltrating the food web, poisoning marine mammals and seabirds and putting several varieties of West Coast shellfish off-limits to consumers. Though algae blooms are somewhat common, they typically arise in the warmest months and disappear before crabbing starts.
Early on, crabbers hoped the fishery might still open in time for them to benefit from the valuable winter holiday market. Somewhere over a half of the state’s crab is caught during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s seasons, when consumers are eager to put crab on their holiday menus. But weeks passed, then months. The coast south of Mendocino County was finally declared clear for crab fishing at the end of March.
Re-printed with permission of SeafoodNews.com