Though fish and wildlife officials are opening the commercial Dungeness crab season in parts of Humboldt County on Jan. 15, Crescent City fishermen continue to be grounded due to unsafe levels of domoic acid.
At the recommendation of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) director and the state public health officer on Monday, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Charlton H. Bonham delayed the opening of the commercial Dungeness fishery from Patrick’s Point in Humboldt County to the California-Oregon state line.
The recreational crab season north of Patrick’s Point is also closed due to domoic acid, according to a CDFW press release.
Unsafe levels of domoic acid were found in the viscera of crab collected in that area, according to a memo from the OEHHA to Bonham. According to a California Department of Public Health Summary of Domoic Acid Levels in Crab, out of six Dungeness crab tested on Dec. 29 at George Reef in the Crescent City area, 17 percent exceeded the federal action level 30 parts per million.
Crab tested on Dec. 29 showed domoic acid levels ranging from 7.4 to 53 parts per million with the average level being 21.7 parts per million, according to the CDPH summary. Test results for crab collected on Saturday from the George Reef area were still pending, according to the summary.
Meanwhile, test results from Trinidad North also showed that 17 percent of six crab collected in the area had domoic acid levels higher than the federal action level. According to the CDPH summary, crab collected on Dec. 29 from the Trinidad North area showed domoic acid levels ranging from 4.2 to 44 parts per million with an average of 14.1 parts per million.
A potent neurotoxin, domoic acid is produced by naturally occurring marine algae, which can increase under certain ocean conditions and can accumulate in shellfish, other invertebrates and sometimes fish, according to a CDFW press release. It can cause illness and sometimes death in a variety of birds and marine mammals that eat organisms affected by the toxin, according to the press release.
In humans, low levels of domoic acid can cause nausea, diarrhea and dizziness. Higher levels can cause persistent short-term memory loss, seizures and death in humans, according to the CDFW press release.
While high amounts of the toxin in crab can delay the season indefinitely, Crescent City Harbor Commissioner Rick Shepherd, who is also president of the Crescent City Fisherman’s Marketing Association, said Wednesday results of crab collected in the Crescent City area earlier this week showed domoic acid levels below the federal action level of 30 parts per million.
Two tests showing crab with domoic acid levels less than the federal action level are necessary for the commercial Dungeness season to open, Shepherd said.
Shepherd said two clean tests from crab caught in the Trinidad North area and one more clean test from crab caught at George Reef are necessary for the season to open from Patrick’s Point to the Oregon state line.
“The results are getting cleaner every time and so we’re getting closer to having two clean tests,” he said, adding that the most recent test results showed just one crab out of the six collected with unsafe domoic acid levels.
Meanwhile, though the official opening date for the commercial season south of Patrick’s Point is Jan. 15 — the latest Fish and Game can delay the season — Shepherd said buyers may ask fishermen below Cape Mendocino not to fish in that zone.
Quality testing showed crab caught off Fort Bragg with 22.4 percent meat, Shepherd said. Crab tested for quality in Eureka showed a meat content of between 24 and 25 percent, he said, and crab tested at Trinidad South showed a meat content of more than 26 percent.
“There’s still price to negotiate and everything in that zone,” Shepherd said, adding that representatives of the fishing fleet were meeting with buyers Wednesday. “We’re not going to have much input, but we’re probably going to listen in to see what happens in that Trinidad-Eureka-Fort Bragg zone. I’m almost positive the buyers say they do not want to buy the crab down around Fort Bragg.”
Though the Crescent City commercial fleet is still unable to ply its trade locally, Shepherd said the crustaceans may be heavier and have more meat once crab boats are able to fish in Del Norte waters. Heavier crab may mean a higher price for the fishermen catching them, so the gain could be a higher income for a boat owner and crew, Shepherd said. But, he added, that he doesn’t know what short-term struggles boat owners and their crew face when they are unable to fish.
“People are borrowing money, people are not paying for things and then they owe interest and credit cards,” Shepherd said. “I can’t really speak for that side of it, I’m just saying hopefully that if the crabs get fuller and they get more money it’ll be a win situation in the long run for people in this area.”
Once the commercial Dungeness fishery between Patrick’s Point and the Oregon border is open, CDFW will provide the fleet a minimum of 72-hour advanced notice announcing when trap gear can be set, according to the department’s press release. Once the season opens, any vessel that takes, possesses on board or lands Dungeness crab from ocean waters outside the delayed area will be prohibited from taking part in that fishery for 30 days, according to release.
For more information about the closure, visit www.wildlife.ca.gov/Fishing/Ocean/Health-Advisories and www.wildlife.ca.gov/crab.