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Fish Rap

Bodega fisheries hearing highlights Dungeness recovery and aquaculture efforts in state

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U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman offered a moment of levity during a recent state fisheries hearing at the Bodega Marine Laboratory when he suggested that instead of aquaculture, maybe a robust new industry of California cricket farms could be a way to keep the people fed.

Huffman's comment drew laughs from the crowd, but the twin subjects on the agenda were very serious business—crabs and aquaculture—and Huffman joined Healdsburg state senator Mike McGuire, who hosted the hearing, for a crowded afternoon summit at the marine lab that featured speakers from across the spectrum of California fishery industries and regulators.

The panel kicked off with the good news that this year's Dungeness and rock crab outlook won't be anything like last year's season, which was essentially canceled because of persistently high levels of domoic acid in the crabs. The last closures on the crab fishery, which was implemented in advance of the season opener last November, weren't lifted until May, bringing real economic hurt to fishermen and nearly $50 million in losses across the state.

Regulators are determined to learn from last year's unprecedented event and respond to any domoic hot spots that might emerge. This year looks good, but 2017 is shaping up for a potential repeat of the 2015 closure.

Sonke Mastrup, environmental program manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, described last year's statewide closure as a "chaotic scene," owing to the unprecedented nature of the domoic-acid outbreak and how to respond to it. The crabbing industry supported a full statewide ban over spot closures last season in order to protect the reputation of the much-in-demand California Dungeness—even if there were areas where the crabs were clean or the levels acceptably low. The problem, in hindsight, was that nobody knew how long the domoic-acid problem would persist when the season was shut down—and nobody anticipated that the season would effectively end before it even got started.

Chuck Cappotto is president of the Community Fishing Association of Bodega Bay and an out-front supporter of the full statewide closure last year. He stepped to the microphone during the hearing with the understated assessment that "we made the best of a bad situation" last year. Moving forward, Cappotto emphasized consumer confidence in the California Dungeness. "We have to ensure the consumer [that the product is safe], or we will lose that fresh market," he warned.

Last year's crab shutdown wasn't just bad, it was unprecedented and devastating to fishermen already reeling from beleaguered salmon stocks, and while officials are optimistic about a rebounded 2016–17 crab season, they're worried about a big blob of warm water lurking off the Pacific Northwest that could bring the pain again by this time next year.

For now, favorable ocean conditions arising from the El Niño-to-La Niña transition have pushed a dissipated local blob of warm water offshore.

As a result, says Raphael Kudela, professor of ocean science at UC Santa Cruz, "we might have seen the peak of toxicity just a few weeks ago" he told attendees at the Oct. 4 hearing. "We're basically normal right now," he said, adding that "we could see local accumulations of toxins, but not a statewide phenomenon."

Patrick Kennelly, chief of the food-safety section at the California Department of Public Health, said that health officials this year aren't seeing anywhere near the levels of domoic acid as last year, even though there are "some hot spots" that popped up in testing this year. He reports, for example, that a single "hot" crab was pulled from the Russian River in September—but two weeks later officials didn't find any crabs with unsafe domoic acid levels (20 parts per million in the meat; 30 ppm in the viscera).

Over the summer, officials found that about half the crabs they tested in Monterey Bay were in the domoic-acid danger zone, but a month later they could only find one hot crab. Kennelly anticipates that there will "probably be . . . some areas that spike up," even as he expressed cautious optimism for this season.

The fear is a return in 2017 of the conditions that gave rise to the 2015 closure, as the Pacific Northwest blob intrudes into southern waters. "I'm optimistic, but you scared me about 2017," McGuire said to Mastrup as the state official described the looming blob.

McGuire said that any state response this year to hot spots would be to push for partial closures instead of a full-on shutdown. The plan for 2017 remains to be seen.

Because of the offshore warm-water blob, Oregon and Washington crabbers are again at risk for extensive crab closures this year. That puts more pressure on the California crab fishery—though one silver lining of the shutdown last year was to ease pressure on the fishery and give the stocks a chance to grow as the industry works with regulators, scientists and health officials to set a course for a California fishery that can adjust when necessary.

"To be adaptive and nimble requires cooperation and collaboration," said Mastrup.

And research. As Huffman noted, there's not a lot of data when it comes to domoic acid's effects on human beings. Last year, state regulators and health officials relied on a single study from Prince Edward Island that found significant health risks associated with the toxin after an outbreak there in the late 1980s. And given the lack of data—Kennelly described last year's domoic-acid response in terms of "flying a little blind"—health officials built in a larger health-safety barrier than perhaps was needed.

Mastrup called for better data but allowed that he's optimistic about 2016 even as "2017 doesn't look great."

"If we're going to rely on the ocean for food," said Mastrup, "we need more research."

Other speakers noted that California is going to have to ramp up its aquaculture efforts. The Dungeness dilemma has unfolded as the state has struggled to promote a robust and profitable aquaculture economy. The crab closure underscored a fragile crabbing economy wholly dependent on unpredictable environmental forces—i.e., global warming and its impact on the health of our oceans.

In the North Bay, most of the ongoing aquaculture action is in raising oysters. John Finger, CEO of Hog Island Oyster Company, quipped to the lawmakers that farming oysters in California is an enterprise that "will kill you with potential," as he described the myriad hoops facing anyone who'd like to get into the business—starting with a balky permitting process that requires regulatory check-offs from more than a dozen agencies, ranging from the Army Corps of Engineers to the state water board. The process takes at least four years to complete, according to state timelines.

Finger noted that before the forced closure of Pt. Reyes National Seashore's Drakes Bay Oyster Company in 2014, the state was fish-farming some 25 million tons of oysters a year. Post-Drakes, that number has dropped to 17 million tons a year, in a state that has an insatiable demand for the bivalves. "We've never met the demand," Finger said, as he bemoaned the permitting process.

Finger was joined by fellow oyster-farmer Greg Dale, southwest operations manager for the Humboldt-based Coast Seafoods Company. Dale noted the rich ironies of trying to scratch out a living in Humboldt, which was music to McGuire's ears. "It's easier to get a permit to grow pot in this state than to get a permit to grow shellfish," Dale said, and McGuire agreed (McGuire has been way out in front on illegal grows and their water-wasting, eco-damaging ways). Dale then played off of Huffman's joke about eating crickets. "I support a Hog Island cricket farm!" he said.

Despite the moment of humor, aquaculture is a touchy subject, especially when it comes to salmon, a fish marketed as "wild-caught California salmon" in a world where most of the salmon consumed by humans is fish-farmed.

Huffman raised his salmon concern to Don Kent, who is spearheading a big aquaculture project in the San Diego bight, growing yellowtail tuna through the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. A skeptical Huffman said he was "a little conflicted" about offshore aquaculture, even though he's seen studies that highlight the protein value of farm-raised fish.

Huffman's salmon concerns are a non-issue because salmon aquaculture is already banned in California. Kent's pilot program in San Diego is designed to displace fish-farmed yellowtail imports with locally grown product.

The bottom line, says Kent: California and the nation as a whole lag far behind other nations that have embraced aquaculture in a world of plummeting oceanic fish stocks and uncertain climate-change effects.

Anthonie Schuur, president of the California Aquaculture Association, noted that the United States already imports most of its fish, and that a mere 2.5 percent of all fish consumed in the country is farm-raised here. Another 6.5 percent is caught by commercial fishermen, and the rest, 91 percent, is imported—including farm-raised fish from far-off nations.

Kent says that's crazy and unsustainable over the long haul, and put it to the lawmakers: "Why import tilapia from Nicaragua when we can grow striped bass here?"

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