‘Challenging ocean conditions’ worry commercial crabbers as delays extend longer into season

Tim Klassen (left) and Lonnie Dollarhide sort through a pot of sport-caught Dungeness crab in 2017. Commercial and recreational crabbing from north of Patrick’s Point to the California/Oregon state border is currently closed due to high levels of domoic acid. (Kenny Priest — contributed)
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Fishermen are voicing concerns and frustration after the commercial crab season was delayed again this week. This time, because of the dangerous levels of domoic acid, there is no set date when the fishery will reopen north of Patrick’s Point.

Glen Spain, northwest regional director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said the closure is the continuation of what is becoming a troubling new norm.

“Testing is showing ‘hot crabs’ (those with high levels of domoic acid) longer and longer into the season,” he said. “We are faced with changing ocean conditions … (there are now) long-term problems up and down the coast.”

On Monday, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the delay of the opening of commercial Dungeness crab fishery from north of Patrick’s Point to the Oregon border.

CDFW spokesperson Jordan Traverso said the closure applies not only to commercial crabbers but to recreational crabbers as well.

“We usually find (domoic acid) in the viscera (or butter/guts),” she said. “But now we’re finding it in the meat, which is not typical.”

Traverso said it is unusual for closures to apply to both the commercial and recreational fishing population. Algal blooms spurred by warmer waters that last later into the season are the likely culprit behind the prolonged high levels of domoic acid, which then accumulates in shellfish among other marine life, she said.

Traverso said she wishes she was able to provide a hard date as to when the closure would be lifted — but that’s something that can’t be predicted. Until the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, in consultation with the California Department of Public Health, determine a safety risk no longer exists to the public, the closure will remain in place.

Once Dungeness crabs have tested above the “action level,” “two consecutive clean sample sets (consisting of six crabs each) collected at least seven days apart, with all crabs in both sets testing below the action level,” are required before CDPH can consider modifying an advisory, CDPH spokesman Matt Conens said in an email.

“Even with clean sample sets, CDPH also has to consider the levels of domoic acid in crabs in adjacent areas and the ability for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to enforce any boundaries between hot zones and those that are open for fishing, before advisories/closures can be modified,” Conens wrote.

The fishermen blame climate change and the effects of the oil industry on the current conditions.

Spain said the climate crisis is causing long-term changes in ocean composition, whether that be increasing temperatures, acidity or otherwise. The fishing industry is feeling it first, he said, because the ocean is changing before the land.

“93 percent of the heat trapped by greenhouse gases is absorbed by the ocean,” he said. “The oil industry knew about this almost 50 years ago and (internally) warned of catastrophic future consequences.”

The problem, Spain said, is that the oil industry failed to warn the public after conducting their own studies on the effects of burning fossil fuels. Instead, Spain charges that the oil industry suppressed the studies, then did “everything they could to deny it.” This is among one of many charges made by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations in a recently filed lawsuit against Exxon, Chevron, Shell and other oil behemoths.

“They lied, created an enormous amount of ancillary damage because of the use of their products, then suppressed efforts to deal with it,” Spain said. “They lobbied against climate change, set science back by decades and caused our industry to have to suffer a problem that’s becoming worse and worse each year, destroying our ability to make a living.”

Exxon did not return a request for comment by the publishing deadline.

Spain said he hopes to see a change in the practices of the oil industry. Because the oil industry caused the problem, he said, they should be the ones charged with fixing it, as well as helping those affected.

For those who believe the climate crisis is still a theoretical construction, Spain had a few words: “We’re commercial fishermen, we’re out there every day and we see the changes. It’s not a theory, it’s an observed fact, and we’re among many of the future victims because of this.”

Philip Santos can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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