With local crab fishermen off the ocean currently due to a delay in the commercial season, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say they’re going to use about $2.5 million in disaster relief funds to figure out how to mitigate the effects of domoic acid.

CDFW delayed the commercial Dungeness fishery in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties from Dec. 1 to Dec. 16, citing poor quality crab. However, according to the California Department of Public Health, crab caught at St. George Reef north of Crescent City continues to show unsafe levels of domoic acid.

At a hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture on Wednesday, Benson Yee, CDPH food safety section chief, said as of Nov. 26, 100 percent, or six out of six crabs tested at St. George Reef showed domoic acid levels above the federal action level of 30 parts per million. Yee’s department issued an advisory on Oct. 24 against eating Dungeness crab caught between Patrick’s Point and the California-Oregon border.

“For this lobster and crab season, the California Department of Public Health, with support from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment is testing the meat in all animals exceeding 30 ppm in order to gather additional data in line with testing done in Oregon and Washington,” Yee said, speaking at a hearing hosted by state Sen. Mike McGuire focusing on California’s whale protection efforts and the 2018-19 crab season. “Industry support has been critical and instrumental in obtaining additional samples within impacted areas so the department can make a determination as to the potential risks to public health.”

At the hearing, McGuire brought up the 2015 commercial Dungeness fishery, which was delayed statewide into 2016 due to high concentrations of domoic acid poisoning in the crab. Noting the state is dealing with a “new reality” due to climate change, McGuire said the hearing would focus on how stakeholders would work together to focus on Dungeness crab and protecting the state’s whales.

McGuire said Humboldt and Del Norte counties and areas in Southern Oregon have emerged as hot spots on the West Coast with regards to high domoic acid concentrations in crab. But, he said, “2018 appears to have peaked in September and October and we are now seeing declining levels of domoic acid even in the north and we do not expect another statewide closure as we saw in the disastrous crab year of 2015.”

Craig Shuman, marine region manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, brought up the $25.5 million in federal disaster relief dollars that were allocated to the 2015-16 California Dungeness and rock crab fishery earlier this year. According to Shuman, 89 percent will be distributed to fishermen who were affected by the delayed 2015-16 season.

“In early September, the department submitted a spend plan to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission,” Shuman said, referring to an interstate compact agency that helps other agencies manage fishing industries in five states.

Shuman said the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will issue requests for proposals and will establish a stakeholder advisory group to develop criteria and priorities for using the mitigation funds.

Citing climate change as a component to a domoic acid challenge that will affect “every season that we are going to try to open,” Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation Fishermen’s Association, said his organization has filed a lawsuit against 30 fossil fuel industry companies.

“For knowingly and continuously promoting their industry and the products they sell and the damage that it has caused to commercial fishermen and coastal communities in the state of California and the state of Oregon,” Oppenheim said. “These companies have buried the truth about impacts climate change will have to oceans, to society as we know it and in particular to commercial crab fisheries. We’re holding them accountable and we look forward to seeing them in court.”

Oppenheim said domoic acid subjected commercial fishing businesses to a new risk they hadn’t met before. While other industries manage their risks better, the commercial fishery didn’t have financial mechanisms or capital facilities in place to ensure that fishing businesses were able to make ends meet and pay the bills while their boats were tied up at the dock, Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim said better tools to deal with domoic acid also need to be developed, whether it’s holding toxic crab until the toxin can be cleared out of their systems or to develop devices to more easily detect domoic acid. He noted that the “technologically advanced society” in the Bay Area could be potentially helpful.

“These are all very expensive proposals requiring a whole bunch of capital and a whole lot of investment,” Oppenheim said. “Who’s going to pay for those? Is it going to be the fishing industry? We’ve already described the financial hardship we’re dealing with. Is it going to be the taxpayer? Certainly the public owns the resource and has an industry in bringing it in. But our organization believes the companies, the fossil fuel industry, is the one that should be held accountable here and that’s the nature of the lawsuit I mentioned earlier.”

Shuman noted the current goal should be adapting to climate change rather than preventing it.

“I don’t see us any time soon being able to prevent domoic acid outbreaks in our waters,” he said. “The scale is too big. The science is not well understood. But we can do a better job of understanding the biological pathways — what conditions lead to the production of the toxins, how are those toxins working their way through the food chain? Once we understand that we may be able to move to prevention.”

On Nov. 27, CDFW environmental scientist Christy Juhasz told the Triplicate the department will continue to test for quality and delay the season in 15-day increments not to go past Jan. 15. As for areas with crab showing unsafe domoic acid levels, Juhasz said Fish and Wildlife would continue working with CDPH to test those areas, which could result in extended delays if unsafe levels of the toxin continue.