Delayed crab season prompts request for state of emergency

David Briggs
DILLON BEACH: Willy Vogler and his cousin Justin Lawson chat at Lawson’s Landing, which has lost 10 percent of its annual retail revenue due to the ongoing delay of the crab season.   

With the opening of the crab catch season still delayed beyond the crucial holiday months, a group of 11 state senators and representatives this week sent a letter imploring Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency for California’s crab industry. Doing so would pave the way for struggling fishermen to receive state aid.

Signed by Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Marc Levine, the letter states that California’s fishery is losing out on the average $60 million in annual crab landings as a result of continued high levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crabs that state agencies have deemed unsafe for public consumption. 

The delayed opening in November of the commercial and recreational seasons forced crabbers to miss out on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and the Chinese New Year, when crab sales are highest.

“This unforeseen disaster has forced individuals to sell equipment and assets, further mortgage their future and seek low wage employment to put food on the table during the holiday seasons when the crab market is typically robust,” the letter read. “Without immediate assistance, we may see thousands of hard working families with no choice but to leave the crab fishing sector, causing damage to our economy for years to come.”

Domoic acid, prevalent in algal blooms (commonly known as red tides), occurs naturally in phytoplankton. If consumed by mammals in large quantities, it attacks the brain’s hippocampus to cause severe memory loss and potentially fatal seizures.

The current algal bloom along the Pacific Coast is the most extensive bloom ever recorded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stretching from Alaska down past Central California. Experts have largely attributed it to warm water, an indication that the current El Niño episode may already be taking its toll on marine ecosystems.

 Domoic-acid poisoning, first diagnosed by the Marine Mammal Center in 1998, has affected more than 210 sea lions so far this year, killing most of them.

Crab fishermen have also been hit hard by the delay, impacting Lawson’s Landing in Dillon Beach. Co-owner Willy Vogler said he has lost around $100,000 so far in retail sales like bait and from fewer bookings at the Dillon Beach campground. 

That’s over 10 percent of annual retail income for Lawson’s, which is about to lose even more revenue when—on orders from the California Coastal Commission—it will be stripped of the permanent trailers that have brought in critical rent money.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” Mr. Vogler said. “We’ve had some money put away, so we’ll probably make it. But I’m a lot more concerned about things.”

Even less certain about the future is lifelong Bolinas fisherman Rob Knowles, who catches as much as 10,000 pounds of crab a year that nets him around $20,000—the majority of his income.

“It sucks,” he said. “Crab is the main money-maker.”

Mr. Knowles has been out of work entirely until a few weeks ago, when he landed some construction work from a friend. But his boat—which cost $4,000 to fix up prior to the crab season opener—has been sitting idle in the Bolinas Lagoon, empty of the 7,000 pounds of crab he would usually have caught by this time of year.

“It’s what I do in the winter,” he said. “I didn’t have any work until recently because I kept thinking maybe it’ll open soon. There’s not that much out there for a fisherman to do.”

State officials will consider lifting the delay along stretches of coast once two sets of samples collected a week apart in specific areas show domoic acid have dropped to a safe level. So far, test sites along the North Bay coast have not returned favorably, though one area off Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

For both Mr. Vogler and Mr. Knowles, opening the season soon would help, despite the huge losses already suffered. But others, like Gospel Flat Farm owner Don Murch, who also sells crab he catches off Bolinas, have moved on already.

“That window for crab fishing for us is over,” said Mr. Murch, who has been focusing on growing more vegetables like kale, lettuce and carrots at the family-run farm. “We’re just going forward here. Spring is happening.”