Archive for December, 2015

Dec 29 2015

Giant squid surfaces in Japanese harbor

By Euan McKirdy and Junko Ogura, CNN
Tokyo (CNN)
It isn’t every day that a mystery from the deep swims into plain sight. But on Christmas Eve, spectators on a pier in Toyama Bay in central Japan were treated to a rare sighting of a giant squid.

The creature swam under fishing boats and close to the surface of Toyama Bay, better known for its firefly squid, and reportedly hung around the bay for several hours before it was ushered back to open water.

It was captured on video by a submersible camera, and even joined by a diver, Akinobu Kimura, owner of Diving Shop Kaiyu, who swam in close proximity to the red-and-white real-life sea monster.

“My curiosity was way bigger than fear, so I jumped into the water and go close to it,” he told CNN.

“This squid was not damaged and looked lively, spurting ink and trying to entangle his tentacles around me. I guided the squid toward to the ocean, several hundred meters from the area it was found in, and it disappeared into the deep sea.”

Yuki Ikushi, the curator of Uozu Aquarium in Uozu, Toyama, told CNN that there were 16 reports of Architeuthis squid trapped by fishing nets last season, and this one is the first sighting this season, which runs from November to March. “We might see more in this season, but it’s very rare for them to be found swimming around (the fishing boats’) moorings.”

The Toyama squid is a fairly small example of the species, estimated at around 3.7 meters (12.1 feet) long, and may be a juvenile. Giant squid are thought to grow as large as 13 meters (43 feet) long. They typically inhabit deep waters, and it is unclear why this one wandered into the bay.

Sightings of giant squid are extremely rare, and indeed for hundreds of years they were considered no more than a myth. The species was likely the inspiration for the mythological Kraken sea monster, a northern European legend popularized in an eponymous poem by Alfred Tennyson, and the Scylla of Greek mythology.

Recent specimens have been found washed ashore dead, when their bright colors have already faded. The first-ever observations of a giant squid in its natural habitat were made in deep waters in the north Pacific in 2004, and Japanese broadcaster NHK, along with the Discovery Channel filmed the first live adult in 2012.

Oceanographer and squid expert Edie Widder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, who was part of the team which first captured the squid on film, told a TED audience in 2013: “How could something that big live in our ocean and remain unfilmed until now?

“We’ve only explored about five percent of our ocean. There are great discoveries to be made down there, fantastic creatures representing millions of years of evolution.”

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Dec 29 2015

Seafood Restaurants Turn to Underutilized, Sustainable Species

The rising trend of “trash fish,” or unusual and underutilized seafood species, on fine dining menus in New York City was discussed last week in The New York Times by Jeff Gordinier. The idea is to, “substitute salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices,” with less familiar species that are presumably more abundant, like “dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.”

Changing diners’ perceptions isn’t always easy, especially about seafood, but there is certainly momentum building for more diverse seafood species. Seafood suppliers are reporting record sales of fish like porgy and hake. Chefs feel good about serving these new species because, “industrially harvested tuna, salmon and cod is destroying the environment.” A new organization, Dock-to-Dish, connects restaurants with fishermen that are catching underutilized species and these efforts are highlighted as a catalyst for this growing trash fish trend. From a culinary perspective, this trend allows chefs to sell the story of an unusual and sustainable species, which more compelling than more mainstream species like tuna, salmon or cod. From a sustainability perspective, Gordinier implies that serving a diversity of seafood species is more responsible than the mainstream few that are “industrially caught” and dominate the National Fisheries Institute list of most consumed species in America.

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr

While I applaud the desire to eat underutilized species, it seems as if the chefs interviewed don’t know much about sustainable seafood. Below are a few quotes from the article that give the impression that eating traditional species such as tuna, cod, salmon and shrimp is an environmental crime.

“Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices”

“The chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”

“Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an ecofriendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.”

“A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers in New York and around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction.”

A well educated chef should know that there are plenty of salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod that are healthy, sustainably managed, and either certified by the Marine Stewardship Council or on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list as best choice or good alternative. There is no reason not to eat these species so long as you know where the salmon, shrimp, tuna or cod comes from.

Second, none of these species is in any way threatened with extinction – some individual stocks may be overfished, but no commercially important species has ever gone extinct or even come close to it. We all hear about the poor state of Gulf of Maine cod but perhaps these Chef’s don’t know that the Barents Sea cod stock is at record abundance levels (4 million tons compared to Gulf of Maine’s estimated 2,500 tons). So the global marketplace for Atlantic cod is going to have a million tons of Barents Sea cod, and less than one thousand tons of Gulf of Maine cod.

Alaska produces hundreds of thousands of tons of sustainable wild salmon — that is both MSC certified and on the Seafood Watch best choice list. Why can’t these Chef’s serve that salmon?

So it is fine for these Chef’s to brag about how sustainable they are (even if they do fly fish half way around the world with a large carbon footprint), but they should know, and advise their customers that there is plenty of sustainable salmon, shrimp, tuna and cod to be served.
Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr

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Dec 27 2015

Dr. Ray Hilborn Responds to NPR: Not All Global Fish Stocks in Decline

 December 22, 2015 — In a commentary published by CFOOD, Dr. Ray Hilborn, Professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington and author of the book Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know,addresses claims made by a recent NPR story that global fish stocks are in decline. According to Dr. Hilborn,the opposite is true for many important global fisheries: stocks in Europe, the United States, Russia, and Japan are actually increasing, while stocks in Australia and parts of Canada remain stable.
Fish Stocks Are Declining Worldwide, And Climate Change Is On The Hook.

This is the title of a recent NPR posting — again perpetuating a myth that most fish stocks are declining.


Let’s look at the basic question: are fish stocks declining? We know a lot about the status of fish stocks in some parts of the world, and very little about the trends in others. We have good data for most developed countries and the major high seas tuna fisheries. These data are assembled and compiled in the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment database, available to the public at This database contains trends in abundance for fish stocks comprising about 40% of the global fish catch and includes the majority of stocks from Europe, North America, Japan, Russia, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Major fisheries of the world that are not in the data base are primarily in S. and SE Asia.
The figure below shows the trend in abundance of fish stocks in these different regions.
Clearly not all fish stocks are declining; they are increasing in the Atlantic Ocean (tuna fisheries), European fisheries, both EU (recent increases), and non-EU (Iceland and Norway), Russia and Japan, and US East Coast, Southeast and Gulf, and US West coast.


Fish stocks in recent years are stable in Australia, Canadian East Coast, South Africa, and Alaska.
We do see long term declines in Canada’s West Coast, the Indian Ocean (tuna fisheries), New Zealand, Pacific Ocean (tuna fisheries) and South America. A characteristic of each of these regions is that they are late developing fisheries, the Pacific and Indian oceans didn’t see wide scale industrial fishing until much later than the Atlantic Ocean and the decline seen is part of the process of developing new fisheries and is planned. The fish stocks in these regions are healthy as very few of these fish stocks are overfished.


For the places we don’t have good data (Africa and Asia), what we do know suggests those areas are seeing significant declines in abundance.


So clearly not all fish stocks are in decline-the pattern depends on the region. We can see from the above graph that with good fisheries management, stocks can recover. The NPR story got the big picture wrong, it isn’t climate change that is on the hook, it is the presence of effective fisheries management that determines the trend in abundance of fish stocks.


The scientific paper on which the NPR story was produced was much more subtle and did not say that fish stocks were decline – that was invented by the authors of the NPR story. The paper estimated that the recruitment potential of the fisheries was declining, specifically that the number of 1 year old fish per adult fish showed a decline in many regions of the world. Interestingly, the paper identified the N. Atlantic as the region of most concern, but when we look at abundance data, the N. Atlantic is the place we see the most stock rebuilding.


The number of 1 year old produced is known as recruitment, and the original paper used the data in the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment database to estimate these trends. The statistics used in the original paper are complex, but we can look quite simply at the trends in recruitment – not the recruitment per spawning adult as done in the paper.
This graph shows the recruitment trend for all stocks in the RAM Legacy Stock Assessment database, with blue the trend if all stocks given the same weight, and red with large stocks giving much more weight. The size of the dots or squares shows the relative number of stocks for which we have data in each year. We do see a clear trend in recruitment decline, with perhaps 10 or 15% decline over the 40 years of available data.


Is this decline in recruitment due to climate change? That is one possibility, but it is also possibly due to stocks being fished to lower abundance over that time as seen in the first graph. However, regardless of the reason, this decline is small and fish stocks can easily rebuild if good fisheries management is put in place.


Read the commentary from Dr. Hilborn at CFOOD
Dec 27 2015

Seafood Restaurants Cast a Wider Net for Sustainable Fish


Michael Chernow doesn’t want people to step inside Seamore’s, his fish-fixated restaurant on the rim of Little Italy, worrying that they’re about to get a heap of science homework dumped onto the table.

“Our goal is not to say: ‘Welcome to Seamore’s School. We’re going to teach you all about sustainable fish,’” said Mr. Chernow, who is also one of the entrepreneurs behind the Meatball Shop chain.

But there is a blackboard. Labeled “Daily Landings,” it covers a wall of the restaurant, operating as a shortcut syllabus for anyone who wants to learn not only what fish are being cooked in the kitchen at Seamore’s, but also what species have been deliciously available for human consumption for centuries: dogfish, tilefish, Acadian redfish, porgy, hake, cusk, striped black mullet.

“Once they see the board, everybody gets pumped,” Mr. Chernow said. “‘Wow, look at all these fish, and I’ve never tasted them before.’”

Over the last decade or so, restaurant diners in this country have become more sophisticated about, and open to, ingredients that used to throw them for a loop: bone marrow, pork belly, sunchokes, orange wine, the ubiquitous kale.

But they’ve remained curiously conservative when it comes to seafood. Salmon, tuna, shrimp and cod, much of it endangered and the product of dubious (if not destructive) fishing practices, dominate one restaurant menu after another.

That is changing, however. A growing cadre of chefs, restaurateurs and fishmongers in New York and around the country is taking on the mission of selling wild and local fish whose populations are not threatened with extinction — as well as the invasive species that do threaten them. And the group has enlisted a special fleet of allies to the cause: the fish themselves.

The way these specialists see it, you can lecture diners about the fate of the oceans, or you can open their minds by stuffing some sea robin into a taco or frying up some crevalle jack for a sandwich, and watching their consciousness shift with each bite.

“What we’ve been trying to do is to take the familiar and infuse it with unfamiliar species,” said Vinny Milburn, an owner and fishmonger at Greenpoint Fish & Lobster Company in Brooklyn, where you won’t find cod but will encounter lionfish, wild blue catfish and almaco jack. “If we put it in tacos, people will buy it and they’ll say: ‘That’s a great fish. I’ve never heard of it.’”

There are fringe benefits for the chefs, too: When an ingredient is less popular, that usually means that it’s less expensive. And figuring out how to conjure up something irresistible out of, say, a bluefish collar helps break cooks out of culinary ruts. “Yeah, it’s a challenge,” the chef Tom Colicchio said. “What do you do with it? I actually like that: It just forces you to be creative.”

Anyone who has taken a beach vacation knows that clam shacks have been frying up the local catch for ages. At the fancier end of things, elite chefs like Mr. Colicchio, Dan Barber, Eric Ripert, Dave Pasternack, David Chang and Kerry Heffernan have made a point of letting people know that bluefin tuna is not the only fish in the sea.

But lately, the idea of casting a wider net has begun spreading to neighborhood spots, diners and national chains like Slapfish, a growing West Coast enterprise that hopes to open a New York City outpost in 2016.

Louis Rozzo, the president of the F. Rozzo & Sons wholesale distributor in New York and a fourth-generation fishmonger, remembers the sort of comments his family used to hear from chefs: “Who’s going to come to an expensive restaurant and order porgy?” Now, porgy, as well as local tilefile and hake, is in high demand.

“I sell more porgies now by far than I ever have, because people are interested in using something different,” Mr. Rozzo said.

There are many different ways of thinking differently, and locally. At Beachcraft, Mr. Colicchio’s new spot in Miami Beach, the menu makes room for wahoo, cobia, queen snapper, Florida clams and Key West shrimp.

Change is not always easy, especially when customers are in vacation-relaxation mode. “It’s hard because you’re in a hotel and people want the usual things,” said Mr. Colicchio, who has resisted suggestions from the owners of the hotel, 1 Hotel South Beach, that he make room on the menu for a safe bet like salmon.

At Rose’s Fine Food in Detroit, the traditional Great Lakes fish fry is given its due with the Wild Man Breakfast, which pairs a pan-fried lobe of brook trout with a plate-blanketing blueberry pancake. Lucy de Parry, who owns the diner with a cousin, the chef Molly Mitchell, can’t imagine serving industrially harvested tuna or salmon or cod. “You can’t really eat that stuff anymore,” she said. “It’s destroying the environment.”

Sticking to local traditions makes sense in the kitchen, since Rose’s Fine Food is meant to celebrate what is grown and fished around Michigan. “We grew up eating brook trout and bluegill and all these little lake fish that our grandpa would catch,” she said. “They’re just there. We kind of roll with what we’ve got.”

Still, many people aren’t even aware that many of these fish exist, or that they are thoroughly edible. Shrimp, salmon and canned tuna alone make up 60 percent of the seafood Americans eat, according to the National Fisheries Institute. (Add the next four species on its list — all usual suspects like tilapia and pollock — and you hit 85 percent.)

Even top chefs find themselves making discoveries that alter the way they think about cooking and nature.

At N/naka, in Los Angeles, the chef Niki Nakayama dreamed of putting together an explicitly Californian rendition of a Japanese kaiseki menu. “The whole philosophy is about showcasing what is close to us,” she said. Much of the produce wound up coming from her own garden, but as she scouted around for seafood that embodied the region’s essence, she came up short. “I kept hitting dead ends,” she said.

Eventually Ms. Nakayama joined forces with Dock to Dish, a coast-to-coast organization that helps local fishermen come to chefs with uncelebrated species that may not otherwise fetch top price in the marketplace — “things I hadn’t seen before,” as she put it. Suddenly, she had at her fingertips whelk-like turban snails and lingcod and ridgeback shrimp and spiny lobster.

She remembers thinking, as the deliveries began to arrive, “Oh, my God, we just landed a treasure chest.”

Arguably no chef in America is more passionate about seafood than Michael Cimarusti, whose flagship restaurant in Los Angeles, Providence, has drawn acclaim for its reverent approach to fish. He is preparing to open Cape Seafood and Provisions, a shop devoted to sustainable seafood. “I feel like the time is right to work on flipping the model,” he said.

He, too, has become a Dock to Dish convert, and in conversation he gets fired up by the challenge of improvising with whatever lands in the kitchen. “I was not necessarily in the market for longspine thornyheads, but that’s what came in one day,” Mr. Cimarusti said, citing a Pacific Coast breed that is colloquially known as “idiot fish.” “We used every part of it. We made a bouillabaisse broth.”

There can be misfires. “It’s sort of trial and error,” he said. “Every fish that we’ve been getting, you’ve got to treat them in different ways.”

The process has changed his way of thinking. “To me there aren’t really many ‘trash fish,’” he said. “They’re just underappreciated, or unrecognized.” (Then again, he draws the line at hagfish. “That stuff’s nasty,” he said. “That comes up like a ball of slime on your hook.”)

Indeed, changing minds sometimes requires a dash of crafty Trojan-horse-style marketing. At Slapfish, which the entrepreneur Andrew Gruel says he wants to turn into “the Chipotle of seafood,” customers come back for “the ultimate fish taco” even though the species of fish inside (hoki, blue catfish, California rockfish) constantly shifts, depending on supply.

“What I do is I get people addicted to the dish and not the fish in the dish,” Mr. Gruel said. He’s also not averse to giving a fish a different name. If “hoki” sounds too obscure or confusing, call it “slapfish.” If people wince at the word “sardines,” may they be more open to his preferred nomenclature: “petite bass”?

Some restaurants go even farther afield to introduce an American audience to species that seem to have been beamed in from other planets. Maiden Lane, in the East Village and in the Urbanspace Vanderbilt market in Midtown, ships in subtle conservas (some of the world’s most elegant canned foods, including stickleback) from countries like Spain, Portugal and Iceland. (A tin of delectable brined cockles from the Ramón Peña company is on the menu for $55.)

At Chaya, in downtown Los Angeles, freakish-looking outliers from Japan like beltfish and red cornet are served to your table in a medley of ways, from sashimi to tempura. Flying them halfway around the world may not count as an eco-friendly gesture, but these oceanic oddities are a far cry from being decimated the way cod has. “Hopefully they’ll try something new and not just those fishes that are overfarmed and overcaught,” said Jenni Hwang, director of marketing for the Chaya Restaurant Group.

At Norman’s Cay, an island-themed restaurant on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an owner, Ryan Chadwick, hooks customers with a dramatic lure: The place specializes in lionfish, an invasive demon of the sea that is notorious for chowing its way through the Caribbean. Mr. Chadwick encountered lionfish in the Bahamas and got an idea.

After removing the venomous spines, the crew at Norman’s Cay applies the simplest of treatments, cooking it on a grill or in hot oil. “We have people calling the restaurant and they’re waiting for the fish to come in,” he said. “Now we have a supply problem.”

Ultimately, the new emphasis on serving different fish is not really about elbowing eaters out of their comfort zone; it’s about pulling them back into it. Making a delicious dinner from a fish that swims in nearby waters is a way of reconnecting with the region you’re in — and returning to an intimate relationship with the water that goes way back.

Michael Psilakis, the chef whose modernized Greek cuisine can be found in and around New York at spots like MP Taverna and Kefi, looks back to the days in his Long Island childhood when he “spent a ridiculous amount of time on boats fishing with my dad.”

Mr. Psilakis remembers pulling up to a beach and using nets to catch whitebait in the shallows. The tiny wrigglers would be kept in buckets with seawater and taken home to be dredged in flour and crisped in oil like piscine French fries. He remembers catching porgy and watching it cook on the grill.

On certain days, Mr. Psilakis and his team still cook and serve porgy and whitebait just like that at various branches of MP Taverna. “Porgies are so cheap, man,” he said. “It used to be a fish that they would throw out. Nobody wanted to eat a porgy.”

But he has learned that if you want more people to eat porgy, all you have to do is get them to try it.

“When we sell those specials, that story is being told,” he said. “The story not only sells the fish, but the story brings an identity to the fish. Somehow it means something. There’s value to it.”

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Dec 23 2015

Fish oil turns fat-storage cells into fat-burning cells in mice, study finds

16448534990_43f5fac072_k_1024Photo: Neil Tackaberry/Flickr

Fish oil has long been known to confer a wide range of health benefits, including boosting the cardiovascular system and potentially even treating the effects of schizophrenia. Now a new study from Japan says it could also help people trying to lose weight.

Researchers from Kyoto University found that mice fed on fatty food and fish oil gained considerably less weight and fat than mice that consumed fatty food alone. The findings suggest that fish oil is able to transform fat-storage cells into fat-burning cells – and if the same process occurs in humans, fish oil could help us reduce weight gain, especially as we age, when our fat-burning cells are in lesser supply.

While we might think of our fat tissue as primarily a fat storage system, this isn’t always so. White fat cells store fat, but brown fat cells metabolise fat to maintain a stable body temperature. Our bodies metabolise fat more easily when we’re young, as we have a greater amount of brown fat cells in youth, but we start to lose them in maturity.

Scientists have also discovered a third type of fat cell – beige fat cells – which function much like brown fat cells in mice and people. Also like brown fat cells, the beige cells diminish in number as we get older, making it harder for our bodies to burn fat. This is where fish oil could come into play.

“We knew from previous research that fish oil has tremendous health benefits, including the prevention of fat accumulation,” said food scientist Teruo Kawada from Kyoto University. “We tested whether fish oil and an increase in beige cells could be related.”

To examine the links, the researchers fed one group of mice fatty food, and another group fatty food with fish oil additives. The results, published in Scientific Reports, reveal how the animals that consumed the food with fish oil gained less 5 to 10 percent less weight and 15 to 25 percent less fat – a significant reduction in the circumstances.

But why does this happen? The researchers say that fish oil activates receptors in the digestive tract, which fires up the sympathetic nervous system and induces storage cells to metabolise fat. In other words, the fish oil causes white cells to transform into beige cells, effectively turning fat-storage tissue into fat-metabolising tissue and leading to increased energy expenditure at the expense of weight gain and fat accumulation. This is good to know.

It’s too soon to say whether these findings also apply to humans, but further studies may show just that, which the researchers believe could contribute to an effective treatment for obesity.

“People have long said that food from Japan and the Mediterranean contribute to longevity, but why these cuisines are beneficial was up for debate,” said Kawada. “Now we have better insight into why that may be.”

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Dec 21 2015

No Christmas crabs for Californians this year

The savory-sweet meat of Dungeness crab isn’t going to make coastal Californians’ Christmas spreads this year.

Though the neurotoxin responsible for delaying crab season — the algae-produced domoic acid — has slowly begun to wane in the tissues and organs of West Coast Dungeness, the last round of tests in California, taken off more than a dozen ports in late November and early December, showed many samples still solidly above the limit of 30 parts per million. 

Two clean tests, a week a part, will be necessary before crabbers are able to ply the seas again, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

Forty-percent of the Dec. 1 Crescent City samples exceeded levels deemed safe, at a total average of 34 parts per million, down from 44 percent and 40 ppm Nov. 18, 

Rough waters have delayed sampling for much of this month, said Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Kalvass, however, he anticipated a boat would be able to get out of Crescent City this week between storms. 

“Hopefully we’ll get the season started after the holidays, but I want to make sure everything is safe for the public,” said Tim Potter, owner of the F/V Pacific Pride, who had been responsible for fishing out the November samples. 

Potter had just returned Tuesday from the A Dock at the Crescent City Harbor, where he’d been hanging Christmas lights on his boat with his wife. Over the phone, he said he wasn’t “chomping at the bit to get on the water.” 

“I don’t get to relax and do a lot of calm stuff. I’m just enjoying time with my family while I have it,” he said. 

Potter’s boat was one of a handful of volunteers to leave pots to collect 12 crabs at graduated depths —15, 25 and 35 fathoms — off both St. George’s Reef and the mouth of the Klamath River. 

Following protocol habitually taken during the pre-season to test for quality and size as well as domoic acid, the crabs are then frozen and shipped overnight to the California Department of Public Health labs in Richmond, to be tested for solely for domoic acid. 

The volunteers pay for the fuel, and the Del Norte Fisherman’s Marketing Association picks up the tab for shipping costs.

Most of the higher domoic acid levels detected have been in Dungeness collected off the North Coast, or in rock crab found in waters surrounding the Channel Islands.

Meanwhile, Humboldt and Del Norte county razor clams are the only bivalve still deemed unsafe for consumption, since CDPH lifted all other health advisories on recreational clams and mollusks Dec. 9. 

Shellfish south of Bodega Bay, and in Oregon, have seemingly dropped off their domoic acid a little more quickly, according to CDPH figures. 

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Kalvass, noting that algae production is generally associated with higher water temperatures. 

Asked why this might be, University of California – Santa Cruz researcher Clarissa Anderson wrote in an email: “Our spotty pier-based monitoring is not extensive enough to really answer this question.”

She had a few guesses, however. Small resurgences of Pseudo-nitzschia, the single-celled chain-forming algae that produces domoic acid, have been seen since the large algae bloom that caused alarm this summer had dissipated some. This could account for how crabs may continue to ingest domoic acid, she said. 

“Crabs are acquiring DA (domoic acid) in the sediments where there is a lot of DA from the massive bloom. It could be that we just had great DA production in CA hotspots over the summer/early fall, thereby creating a larger pool of DA in the sediments (for) Dungeness to acquire,” said Anderson. 

The North Coast and areas in San Diego are still projected to be hot spots, though this has not been substantiated, she wrote. 

CDFW Director Charlton Bonham has said once the season opens again, there will be a lot of such questions that will need to be vigorously researched.

In the meantime, crabbers will continue to scrape by and volunteer their time and fuel to collect samples, hoping that when the season does open, all the publicity about domoic acid won’t scare customers away, said Capt. Randy Smith of the F/V Mistasea. 

“It’s really hard. Your bills keep going and we’re just sitting here. And with Christmas coming that’s really hard on the crews. That part’s the shame, but we’ve sat for months and months in the past,” he said, conjuring up past seasons stalled by crab that was too small or too poor in quality.

 “There’s no history or data available with domoic acid. It’s just a guess,” Smith said. “You can guess all day long if you want. With soft shell we know what we’re doing in numbers, but with this we don’t have any idea when we’re going to get out there. We’ve all been ready for a couple of months.”

christmasboatsTim Potter and his wife decorated the Pacific Pride with Christmas lights this week, relishing the free time while waiting for crab season to open. Del Norte Triplicate / Bryant Anderson

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Dec 18 2015

Rep. Janice Hahn calls for $10 million in federal funding for breakwater repairs ahead of El Niño

The sun sets behind the Angels Gate Light during a harbor cruise off San Pedro on Aug. 6, 2015. The San Pedro breakwater extends left from the lighthouse to Cabrillo Beach. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)


Rep. Janice Hahn is calling on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to fund $10 million for repairs to the San Pedro breakwater to safeguard the harbor and portside community against potential harm from upcoming El Niño storms.

Hahn, who represents the 44th Congressional District based in the Harbor Area, announced a plea for immediate repairs Thursday after the Army Corps reported finding four major and 12 significant damage areas along the more than century-old stone breakwater, though corps engineers have “a high degree of confidence” it will hold up to heavy storms predicted to begin in January.

Hahn had asked the corps for an assessment of the breakwater after officials gave several members of Congress from California a briefing on El Niño preparations last week.

She penned a letter Thursday to Army Corps of Engineers Assistant Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy calling for the funding to be made available so repairs can proceed on the breakwater, which stretches from Cabrillo Beach to the Angels Gate Lighthouse.

“This El Niño season could bring unprecedented storms to California and we have to be prepared,” Hahn said in a statement. “The significant damage to the San Pedro breakwater needs to be repaired as soon as possible.”

She inquired about the status of the breakwater out of concern that El Niño could create breaches like those in the neighboring Middle Breakwater caused by Hurricane Marie last year, spokeswoman Elizabeth Odendahl said.

Army Corps spokesman Greg Fuderer said emergency repairs to that breakwater cost about $5 million. Less critical work on the Middle and Long Beach breakwaters cost an additional $9.25 million.

The San Pedro breakwater likely incurred some of its damage during the same storm in the summer of 2014, he said. Heavy waves from the hurricane pounded all three breakwaters, dislodging stones in some places.

Though Hahn is asking for $10 million, Fuderer said a project manager has estimated the repair cost to be about $7 million.

“The Port of Los Angeles is part of the busiest port complex in the nation and any disruption in cargo movement could be disastrous for the local as well as the national economy,” Hahn said. “As we prepare for El Niño storms, we cannot risk allowing any damage to the protective breakwater to go unaddressed.”

Rep. Janice Hahn

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Dec 18 2015

Changing Tides

Photo: HEIDI WALTERS. – The catch that may not come.

“This was a weird year for the ocean,” says Dave Bitts. The 40-year veteran of the local fishing industry and president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is docked at Woodley Island. He sits at the Marina Café nursing a cup of coffee and talking with some other fish folk about the weather. Normally, the captains wouldn’t be found on dry land any morning past the first of December, the traditional opening date for crab season on the North Coast, but a public health threat has grounded the fleet, spelling possible disaster for thousands of small businesses and families. As Bitts said, it’s no ordinary year.

First, it was the salmon, or the lack thereof. Many small operators fish for salmon in the summer and crab in the winter to make ends meet. This year, however, the runs were thin. Bitts says he grossed about half of his usual haul. He caught a total of six fish after July 8.

“The fish were eating stuff I’m not used to seeing them eat,” he says. “Salmon are wonderful creatures. They can survive off almost anything. This year, though, I cut them open and saw a lot of small octopuses in the fish. I caught fish that were plugged with them. I’ve never seen that before.”

Wade Sinnen, senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, says that although salmon numbers have not been finalized, experts think they will “not meet pre-season expectation.”

“We had that warm water sitting off the coast, it definitely affected the distribution, if not the numbers,” he says, adding that scientists have also noticed the salmon eating strange things, indicating that their normal diet may have been disrupted.

Biologists also blame warmer ocean water for a large algal bloom stretching from the central California Coast up to Washington. The biggest bloom in over a decade, it’s producing unprecedented levels of domoic acid, a powerful neurotoxin that has rendered large quantities of shellfish harmful to human health and forced public officials to stall the opening of the crab fishing season.

“I’m upset, I’m not happy,” said Charlton Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, at a recent hearing on the delay of the season. “This is a situation that’s causing real harm to many people.”

At the hearing, which was hosted by State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood on Dec. 3, Bonham reviewed the options in front of officials.

“I don’t know when we will open. You deserve honesty,” he said. “Should we hold and open statewide? Should we open on a regional basis, taking into consideration that a crab may not respect a regional boundary?”

The CDFW has set up a hotline and a webpage for crabbers to call for updates. It will take two consecutive weeks of clean tests before the agency considers opening the season.

“The reports are inconsistent,” McGuire says in a phone interview. “One week we’ll have crab with low levels of domoic acid, another week high levels. We are very much starting to plan for the worst.”

The worst, many agree, would be no crab at all. It already seems likely that the season may open after Christmas, traditionally the height of consumer demand for the Dungeness.

“In particular for Del Norte and Humboldt counties, we are dependent on crab industry for a healthy economy,” McGuire says. “There was a $95-million crab harvest last year; the average is $60 million. There are very few industries that put people before profit, and this is what the Dungeness crab industry has done this year.”

McGuire refers to the publicly stated desire of many crabbers to ensure safe conditions before hoisting anchor.

“We don’t go until we can prove that the crabs are clean,” Bitts says. “Our chances of putting a bad crab on the market are vanishingly small. We want the chances to be as small as they can be. We’re kind of proud of ourselves for being proactive. We’re not recalling anything like the beef or the peanut butter people.”

McGuire, too, praises the high standards of Bitts and his ilk.

“It is the first time you’ve had such significant coordination between crabbers, processors, state and federal government,” McGuire says. “But we’re also in unprecedented times.”

At the Dec. 3 hearing, which brought together scientists, politicians and state officials, there was near-unanimous agreement that climate change is responsible for the changing ocean. Cat Kuhlman, deputy secretary for Oceans and Coastal Policy at the California Natural Resources Agency, warned that these conditions “are the new normal.” Many who work the seas agree.

“It’s impossible to say climate change is not involved,” Bitts says. “With ocean acidification … we’re not looking at a smooth and linear change.”

McGuire has put out the call to those in the industry to begin tallying this season’s costs so far for possible reimbursement, should a state of emergency be declared. On Nov. 24, congressional representatives sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown requesting the state consider compensation if the season is canceled.

Bitts says some relief money would be welcome, especially to pay seasonal workers who have been standing by, waiting for their chance to pull out of port. Many captains have lost their crews already. Still others have sunk their savings into gear and getting their crafts ship-shape, leaving little left over for buying Christmas presents. But Bitts says he would rather have the season open late than not at all, adding that the most profitable season he ever had began in January. A start as late as March or April, though? That would be hard, he says.

Businesses and industries tangential to crabbing are also feeling the squeeze. Processing plants, which normally run all hours at full tilt during the season, have stopped hiring. On the other side of the bay, Seth Griggs, third generation owner of Custom Crab Pots, says that a busy November has tapered off into silence.

“This is the first time we’ve ever laid off guys before Thanksgiving,” he says. “I hear of guys moving out of the state, some of them just trying to get work wherever they can.”

But, he adds, crabbers are used to an occasional “bump in the road.”

It was a similar bump that knocked Tim Harkins, formerly a Trinidad crab fisherman, out of the industry in 1992. The season was delayed by many rounds of price negotiation and the subsequent strike of crabbers up and down the coast as they waited for buyers to set a better price per pound.

“It was unusual because people got together,” Harkins says. “There was solidarity up and down the coast.”

Strikes, delays due to underweight crabs, and the vagaries of the weather are common in the industry.

“I would never have much of a margin,” he says. It was, and is, a gamble. Bigger operations might make a year’s salary in two months. Harkins fished year round. With two kids at home, he was barely making it.

The strike broke when some boats in Newport decided to leave harbor. Everyone else followed suit, “stumbling out of the gate.” Then, a few weeks into the season, the news came down. Domoic acid had been found in shellfish off the Washington Coast, the first such discovery. Fishing stopped for the season, and Harkins decided to get out for good. He went on to become a school bus driver, a job with its own set of challenges but a great deal more stability.

“When you fish, there are so many things you have no control over, and one or two more make it the tipping point,” he says.


Crab Fisherman’s Lament 1991-92

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the hall,
all the fisherman sat at the conference call.
The boats, they were nestled all snug in the bay,
in hopes that tomorrow would be opening day.
And Bud with his checkbook, and Vince with his pen,
were just sitting down, they had done it again.
They had to come up with some new kind of story,
“Well you know guys we’ve got way too much inventory.
The most we could possibly pay you’s a buck,
if you want more than that, well you’re shit out of luck.”
In all of the ports there arose such a clatter,
people jumped out of bed to see what was the matter.
“All right guys, calm down now, you’ve vented your spleen,
perhaps we could give you a dollar fifteen.”
“Enough of this bullshit, we’ve had it to here,
we’re not goin’ fishing, we’re not setting the gear.”
So we tied up the boats, put away all the bait,
and we all settled down for a long winter’s wait.
In Fort Bragg and Eureka, “Come hell or bad weather”
Crescent City and Brookings “We’re sticking together!”
And even in Trinidad, Port Orford too,
but we just didn’t count on that bad Newport crew.
“We’re not sitting around, nah, we’re setting the gear
the rest of you go stick a squid in your ear!”
Well the wind it was calm, and the ocean was placid,
then came unfamiliar words, DOMOIC ACID.
“For some weird sort of chemical found in the guts
they’re closing the season, those guys must be nuts!”
We ranted and raved, but ’twas to no avail
’cause the Feds and the bureaucrats always prevail
After twenty-some odd days, we finally did go,
and over both shoulders some crabs we did throw.
But there weren’t too many, and a pretty poor price,
For a lot of us Christmas really wasn’t that nice.
Well you knew things got screwed up, now you know the reason.
Happy New Year to all, and, well, maybe next season.

— Tim Harkins F/V Maria Concetta, Trinidad

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Dec 18 2015

Port commissioner wants to sue the feds over sea lions

Daily Astorian/File Photo
Seals and California sea lions are seen on the docks of the East End Mooring Basin in Astoria in June.



Commissioner Bill Hunsinger wants the Port of Astoria to go after the federal government regarding sea lions.

Port of Astoria Commissioner Bill Hunsinger said the agency should do something — potentially litigation — against the federal government regarding California sea lions in the Columbia River.

“Somebody has to be first, and I think it’s time for the Port of Astoria to be first at something,” Hunsinger said, after adding sea lions to the agenda of Tuesday’s Port Commission meeting.

Hunsinger, a commercial fisherman, said the agency needs to do something before the smelt start running early next year. The small, oily eulachons are a popular diet for male California sea lions migrating by the thousands north between breeding seasons, along with endangered salmon runs and anything else seasonal and abundant.

The pinnipeds have been showing up in the Columbia in increasing numbers, including more than 2,300 counted in March at the Port’s East End Mooring Basin. The Port has said the sea lions, which can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, are causing extensive damage to docks and preventing slips at the basin from being rented to boat owners. Hunsinger estimated 143 prospective customers are waiting to get a slip at the West End Mooring Basin, where sea lions have not congregated, while the east mooring basin remains empty, except for two docks near the breakwater with mostly commercial vessels.

“I don’t know why we have to provide those sea lions a home,” Hunsinger said, adding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should help the Port solve the problem or compensate the agency for the damage caused by the animals.

Sea lions were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, when their population was as low as 25,000. Current estimates have the population at more than 300,000 along the entire West Coast. NOAA oversees protection of sea lions through the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The Port’s attorney, Tim Ramis, said the idea sounds like a novel first-time effort, and that he would look into the options.

Executive Director Jim Knight said the most effective barriers tried by NOAA were rolled steel that keeps sea lions from jumping on docks. He estimated the barriers could cost the Port $450,000 to $500,000.

“It’s a daunting number,” he said, adding the Port may need to find an alternate solution.


Raise the bar


Robin Brown, Marine Mammal Program Leader for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he has worked on the sea lion issue with the Port for decades.

About 15 years ago, Brown said, he helped the Port create drawings of 1.5-inch galvanized steel pipes elevated nearly 2 feet above the edges of the docks, a strategy he said has worked in various ports in the Puget Sound region.

“To do the East End Mooring Basin, you’re talking about $15,000 to $20,000,” Brown said. “The marinas in Puget Sound have done that, and they have been effective.”

Brown said a shortage of prey in California, a growth in the sea lion population and stronger runs of smelt and salmon are driving the sea lions into the Columbia River. He said it is a problem the Port will have to deal with for decades.

“Really, the only way to deal with it is to make the investment for some significant and solid barriers,” Brown said, adding marine mammal problems are near the bottom in funding priorities for NOAA.


Starving sea lions


Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, said she recently found California sea lion pups in their San Miguel Island rookeries averaged 26 pounds, more than 30 percent less than usual and the lowest average weights in more than 40 years of monitoring. The starvation points to their mothers’ difficulty in foraging because of unseasonably warm waters driving prey farther offshore. Mothers and young tend to stay closer to their California rookeries.

Melin said the expectation is for the large die-offs and strandings of the last couple of years to continue with El Niño conditions.

“For the most part, this doesn’t affect the males as they tend to migrate out of the area in late August and remain north of San Francisco through most of the winter and spring,” she said.

Both Melin and Brown said the seasonal availability of prey will determine where and how many sea lions aggregate.

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Dec 17 2015

November Takes a Bite Out of ‘the Blob’

Warm expanse that heated up West Coast waters is beaten, but not yet broken

The so-called “blob” of infamous warm ocean waters that has gripped the West Coast and shaken up its marine ecosystems in the past two years is battered, but not dead yet, NOAA scientists report.

Strong winds blowing south from Alaska toward California dominated the West Coast through much of November, bringing cold air and some new upwelling of deep, cold water that weakened the warm patches that had long made up the blob, said Nathan Mantua, leader of the Landscape Ecology Team at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California. Patches of ocean that had been as much as 2 to 3 degrees C warmer than average in October have now dropped sharply to around 0.5 to 1.5 degrees C above average. Some areas along the Northern California Coast have even dropped to slightly below average temperatures for this time of year, he said.

SST anomalies, Nov 2015 and Dec 2015

Sea surface temperature maps from early November and early December illustrate decline of the large patches of warm water off the West Coast that have become known as “the blob.” The maps chart the difference between current and average sea surface temperatures, with darker red illustrating temperatures farther above average.

The blob has become one of the best-known temporary features of the world’s oceans, a big red expanse on temperature maps that has earned headlines in the New York Times and other outlets around the world. It has also become one of the hottest topics in climatology and oceanography, with scientists looking for possible links to climate change and the California drought; shifting distributions of marine species; and the unprecedented harmful algal bloom that has encompassed the West Coast, shutting down crabbing and clamming for months.

The one main exception to the blob’s decline is a narrow band of still-warm water along the coast from Southern California to San Francisco that remains about 3 degrees C above normal for this time of year. But the band may also be an early signal of the arrival of El Niño-related ocean currents, which are expected to cause more warming along the Pacific Coast in the next few months, Mantua said.

SST anomalies off U.S. West Coast

A close-up of sea surface temperatures off the West Coast, with red illustrating areas warmer than average and blue representing areas below average.

Research scientist Nick Bond of the NOAA Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington originally coined the term, “the blob,” to describe the warm expanse. He said climate models agree the strip of warm water will remain along the West Coast, perhaps helping the blob hang on. He figures that the conditions might continue “well into 2016, and be of great enough magnitude to matter to marine ecosystems. How much is the big question.”

“Unusually warm temperatures still dominate the Pacific between Hawaii and the West Coast, but the amount of warmth is lower now than it has been for most of the past two years,” Mantua said. “As we get into the winter months, the expected El Niño influence on North Pacific weather and ocean currents includes more dramatic changes in West Coast ocean temperatures that will likely include coastal warming and offshore cooling.”

Previous articles

A Remarkable Warming of Central California’s Coastal Ocean (Jul 30, 2014)

Unusual North Pacific Warmth Jostles Marine Food Chain (Sep 8, 2014)

Oncoming El Niño Likely to Continue Species Shakeup in Pacific (Oct 1, 2015)

Contact: SWFSC Fisheries Ecology Division, Landscape Ecology Team

Current conditions: What’s happening now?

Below are the most recent sea surface temperature anomaly maps for the U.S. West Coast and the Northeast Pacific. These images are generated live from a data server, so they make take a few seconds to display.

Sea surface temperature anomalies, U.S. West Coast

Sea surface temperature anomalies, Northeast Pacific

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