‘Time is of the essence’: Fisheries face uncertainty

California 2nd District Sen. Mike McGuire asks questions to California Department of Public Health Food and Drug Branch Chief Dr. David Mazzera (foreground) at the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture meeting in Eureka on Friday.
California 2nd District Sen. Mike McGuire asks questions to California Department of Public Health Food and Drug Branch Chief Dr. David Mazzera (foreground) at the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture meeting in Eureka on Friday. Will Houston — The Times-Standard

State regulators and fishing officials said at a Eureka hearing on Friday that only by working together can they overcome the trials and uncertainty that several California’s fisheries face today.

With a poor salmon catch in 2017 and 2016 and a potential delay in the North Coast Dungeness crab season following three years of poor landings and abnormal ocean conditions, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations Executive Director Noah Oppenheim said fishing fleets are still feeling the economic effects and that time to address the underlying issues is running slim.

“Fisheries failures are a different sort of disaster,” he said to the committee’s three state legislators. “They are not acute, they don’t wipe out entire neighborhoods, but they do wipe out entire coastal communities slowly as they wither on the vine due to environmental conditions that result in persistent declines.”

‘Time is of the essence’

Preliminary estimates show that California’s commercial salmon fleet saw a 67 percent reduction in catch in this year’s recently concluded season compared to the average catch in the past five years, according to California Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Region Manager Craig Shuman. Shuman said the North Coast saw even lower catch numbers, but did not provide further details.

Meanwhile, California Dungeness Crab Task Force Executive Committee member Mike Cunningham said they have been “blindsided” by recent test results showing some North Coast crab have unhealthy levels of a neurotoxin. It is the same toxin produced by the same types of algal blooms that led to a six-month fishing delay in the 2015-2016 season. Cunningham urged the Department of Public Health to expedite crab testing in the coming weeks.

“Time is of the essence here,” Cunningham said.

As the neurotoxin is often stored in the crab guts, state regulators are now considering whether to allow crab to be caught as long as processors remove the guts.

Meanwhile, Congress has yet to appropriate disaster relief funds to help crab and salmon fishermen, along with associated businesses, to recover from the losses incurred during the 2015-2016 seasons. The federal government declared a fishery disaster in January for the 2015-2016 California Dungeness crab season and the Yurok Tribe’s 2016 salmon season because of season delays and poor catch.

California Senate legislative committee chairman and 2nd District state Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said California and Oregon have since requested disaster declarations for the 2017 salmon season, which saw the lowest predicted return of Klamath River Chinook salmon on record.

McGuire said state regulators and fishing stakeholders need to take action now to push the federal government to declare a fisheries disaster for not only salmon, but also the state’s urchin and sardine industries.

“Here’s the cold hard truth,” McGuire said. “Fishermen and businesses who rely on a thriving fleet are facing foreclosures, defaults on loans and trying to find work whereever they can to put food on the table for their families.”

‘A perfect storm’

In order for fisheries to recuperate and thrive in the future, Shuman said that the state and fishing fleets must focus on managing fisheries sustainably in the face of a changing climate.

State researchers have attributed the abnormally warm ocean conditions in recent years, including the El Niño weather patterns, to a several marine anomalies including unprecedented large toxic algae blooms, poor ocean production resulting in loss of available food and other factors that have directly impacted the state’s fishing industries.

Shuman said there was a “perfect storm” of abnormally warm ocean temperatures on the North Coast that converged with an epidemic of a wasting disease that wiped out whole populations of sea stars. As a result, one of the sea stars’ prey species, purple urchins, went unchecked and were able to eat vast swaths of kelp forests. Shuman said this resulted in an almost complete loss of northern California’s kelp forests as well as a 70 percent decline in red urchin fishery landings.

California Sea Urchin Council Vice President Tom Trumper said the abnormally high ocean temperatures in recent years has stifled the growth of kelp, but he said there have been hopeful signs of kelp returning. Trumper said the divers that harvest the urchins are now having to dive up to 110 feet now to find their catch, placing the divers in danger.

“We’ve already lost a couple guys; we’ve got two to three guys that are paralyzed for life from this,” Trumper said. “... We’re in dire need. Our infrastructure, we’re losing our processors. If we don’t do something soon we’re going to be in major trouble.”

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

Advertisement