2016 Crab Season Looking Good

by Daniel Mintz, October 12, 2016

State lawmakers have been told that the upcoming Dungeness crab season is likely to proceed normally, without significant impacts from toxic algae blooms.

But the viability of the 2017 to 2018 season isn’t assured, as an expansive warm water blob has moved offshore but is still present.

The state legislature’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture met in Bodega Bay on October 4 to field some positive news from ocean experts.

Senator Mike McGuire, the committee’s chair, previewed their presentations. “We’re not expecting the massive coastwide closures the fleet experienced in 2015 and 2016 – we believe that the worst may be behind us,” he said.

Detailing positive trends, Raphael Kudela of the University of California Santa Cruz said that California’s ocean temperatures are now cooler than the long-term average. That’s good news because last year, warm water provoked algae blooms and production of the domoic acid toxin, which delayed the Dungeness crab season by several months.

Kudela said that testing of crabs has shown that domoic acid levels are dropping quickly from the spikes seen last month.

“Humboldt was lighting up as an area that was that was toxic, picking up through September – that’s now gone away,” he continued. “We see that basically the whole pattern has started to shift a little bit offshore.”

Other coastal areas have also seen drops in toxin presence. “What we’re seeing is peaks in the bloom in September and now it’s starting to come down pretty fast,” Kudela said.

A warm water “blob” still lingers but is distanced from fisheries. “The return to normal conditions has pushed the conditions that are favorable to this bloom further offshore, to where the water is still warm,” said Kudela. “That’s really good for crab and for fisheries because that means most of the bloom is going to be far enough offshore – it’s not going to be impacting these organisms.”

Joining the committee was Congressman Jared Huffman, who summarized Kudela’s presentation by saying, “I believe I’m hearing you say that we’re trending toward what could be a safe Dungeness crab season this year.” Kudela affirmed that.

But he emphasized that the blob of warmth that caused last year’s problems is still present. Kudela said that if this winter’s storms are weak, upwelling of cool water will be limited and warmer than normal conditions could prevail beginning in the spring of 2017.

For now, cooler conditions are driving toxicity down. Patrick Kennelly of the California Department of Health said the results of crab testing reflect the trend.

In response to a question from Huffman on research-related issues such as improved definition of what an unsafe toxicity level actually is, Kennelly said, “Certainly more research needs to be done.”

Sonke Mastrup, programs manager for the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said last season’s drastic delay has underscored the need to understand and be prepared for toxic algae blooms.

“We plan on testing all the way up to the season to give the fishermen an idea of what they’re going to walk into,” he continued.

Mastrup said his department is optimistic about the upcoming season – with a caveat. He said Kennelly “scared me” with the discussion of what may happen in 2017.

Even with a warm water scenario, Mastrup said the state will be “in a much better place to handle it.” But he added that more research needs to be done on what’s driving ocean conditions and blooms.

“We’re going from one set of conditions to something we don’t know,” Mastrup said.

“What I would love to hear is not only an acknowledgement of the need for that research, but somebody telling me that it’s actually happening,” Huffman said in response.

He said he believes he has “a bit of homework to do” with regard to federal involvement.

McGuire also emphasized the importance of funding research efforts. “Ocean conditions have changed over time and we have to be prepared for a new reality,” he said.

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