Archive for August, 2016

Aug 29 2016

Letters: Why Does President Obama Want to Eliminate Sustainable Commercial Fisheries?

SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Letters] August 29, 2016


Dear Seafood News Editor,

“Help us identify Champions who are helping the ongoing recovery of America’s fishing industry and fishing communities,” Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Council of Environmental Quality Director Christy Goldfuss posted on the White House Blog on August 10.   They were appealing for nominees for this year’s White House Champion of Change for Sustainable Seafood.”

The blogpost had many complimentary things to say about our U.S. commercial fisheries:

“America’s fishers, and our seafood industry, have fed Americans and their families since our nation’s beginning. What’s more, this industry remains critical to the economic health and well-being of communities across the country.

“After decades of decline, we are witnessing the economic and ecological recovery of America’s fishing industry.  Overfishing has hit an all-time low, and many stocks are returning to sustainable levels. The U.S. fishing industry contributed nearly $200 billion annually to the American economy in 2014 and supports 1.7 million jobs.

“This shift did not come easy.  It took hard work, collaboration, and sacrifice by many across the country. Although there’s still more to do, America’s fisherman have led the way to the United States becoming a global leader in sustainable seafood management.

“This turnaround is a story about innovative ways to catch fish and other seafood sustainably, and connect fishers with their customers. It is a story about the value of science and management working together, and a willingness to make sacrifices today for a better tomorrow. And it is a story about sustaining a proud livelihood that is the backbone of so many coastal communities nationwide.

“President Obama and his Administration want to honor America’s fishers and our coastal communities for their efforts.”

We agree with everything Secretary Pritzker and Director Golfuss said.

Yet on Friday, August 26, President Obama announced he was expanding the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii, creating the world’s largest marine protected area. The fact sheet stated:  “Building on the United States’ global leadership in marine conservation, today’s designation will more than quadruple the size of the existing marine monument, permanently protecting pristine coral reefs, deep sea marine habitats, and important ecological resources in the waters of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.”

But President Obama’s executive order, authorized under the Antiquities Act, also prohibited commercial fishing in an area increased by 442,781 square miles, bringing the total protected area of the expanded monument to 582,578 square miles.   This unilateral action happened without the transparency, science-based decision-making and robust public process trumpeted in the President’s own National Ocean Policy, nor the bipartisan Congressionally mandated Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), which requires fisheries to be managed under a transparent, science-based process administered by regional fishery management councils.

The announcement precipitated extreme disappointment from commercial fishermen and Council members alike, who decried the lack of science and economic pain inflicted on sustainable fisheries and fishing communities. “Closing 60 percent of Hawaii’s waters to commercial fishing, when science is telling us that it will not lead to more productive local fisheries, makes no sense,” said Edwin Ebiusi Jr., chair of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.  “Today is a sad day in the history of Hawaii’s fisheries and a negative blow to our local food security.”

“It serves a political legacy rather than any conservation benefits …” said Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds.  “The campaign to expand the monument was organized by a multibillion dollar, agenda-driven environmental organization…  The President obviously chose not to balance the interests of Hawaii’s community, which has been divided on this issue,” she added.  Fisheries are the state’s top food producer, according the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

“Our party’s over,” wrote Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, but the monument lobbying effort continues on the east coast and off California, where well-heeled environmental advocates are lobbying to close productive sea mounts in New England, as well as most of the offshore seamounts, banks and ridges off the California coast, all of which are critically important to the long-term sustainability of commercial fisheries in those regions.

On both the east and west coast, fishermen, allied seafood companies and business interests as well as the regional fishery management councils have mounted vigorous opposition to the use of unilateral executive order under the Antiquities Act to manage fisheries.   They point to existing National Ocean Policy promises and the Magnuson Act, which require science-based decision-making and robust stakeholder involvement.  A transparent process that includes scientific and economic analysis and public involvement already exists through the MSA and fishery management councils.    Why not use it?

This Administration’s disrespect for Congressional mandate and its own ocean policies begs the question:  Why does this President want to curtail sustainable fisheries?

D.B. Pleschner
Executive Director
California Wetfish Producers Association

Michael Ramsingh 1-732-240-5330
Editorial Email:
Reporter’s Email:

Copyright © 2016

D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, a nonprofit dedicated to research and to promote sustainable Wetfish resources. More info at

Aug 26 2016

Our View: Stakeholders deserve open process in monument designation

Posted Aug. 26, 2016 at 2:01 AM

Editor’s Note: The letters by the mayors of New Bedford and Monterey, California, referred to in this editorial are printed elsewhere on this page. New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell wrote to the White House Council on Environmental Quality and Monterey Mayor Clyde Roberson wrote to President Obama.

The National Park Service was established 100 years ago when President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

“The service thus established,” the act reads, “shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This brilliant action — called America’s Best Idea by the Park Service — has enriched our nation, even the world, in ways perhaps never imagined by President Wilson or Congress, for the population is 3½ times today what it was in 1916, and the environmental impact of that growth could scarcely have been predicted.

The 84 million acres under the NPS is a treasure that belongs to all of us, and we applaud efforts to expand the protection of our natural resources, but we also recognize some such efforts go too far, including in the push to establish a national monument off the New England coast.

The Canyons and Seamounts are indeed precious resources, but the scope and the current process being advanced by environmental organizations lack checks and balances that would deliver a better policy.

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell last week sent a letter to the acting director of the Council for Environmental Quality, a White House agency that advises the president on such issues, noting the push for the seamounts monument has kept stakeholders from participating in the process.

Indeed, we have previously reported on efforts by environmentalists to keep their advocacy for the monument designation a secret in order to gain an advantage over industry and other stakeholders.

Mayor Mitchell’s argument in last Friday’s letter to CEQ is that the public processes ensconced in the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act provide a robust framework with both the scientific rigor and stakeholder access needed to create good public policy. He also noted that a virtuous alternative to the proposed designation and the potentially devastating impact this opaque process would have on commercial fisheries has been advanced by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Both economic and conservation goals are achieved by the plan proposed by ASMFC, a congressionally authorized coalition comprising “the director of the state’s marine fisheries management agency, a state legislator, and an individual appointed by the state’s governor to represent stakeholder interests” in each of the 15 coastal states from Maine to Florida. The species sought and the methods used show sensitivity to the preservation of the resources, and the ASMFC proposal is “acceptable to the industry,” the mayor wrote.

Also last Friday, the mayor of Monterey, California, Clyde Roberson, sent a letter to President Obama, because he is fighting off a monument designation off of his coast that similarly threatens the commercial fishing industry there.

He argues that laws such as Magnuson-Stevens, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act are more than adequate to ensure protection of the natural resources with full transparency and access to stakeholders. He says the closed process being urged by environmentalist under the Antiquities Act is inadequate to the task.

The president did not go along with the environmentalists last fall, and it is our fervent hope that if he isn’t advised by CEQ to pursue the more open process, the duty to represent and hear all stakeholders will prevail.

Read the full editorial at the New Bedford Standard-Times

Read Mayor Jon Mitchell’s full letter here

Read Mayor Clyde Roberson’s full letter here


Originally posted by Saving Seafood

Aug 25 2016

Coastal mayors join to oppose Obama administration’s ‘marine monuments’ plan

By Steve Urbon

The Obama administration is running afoul of transparency and openness as it prepares to create offshore marine monuments off California and New England, two mayors including Jon Mitchell are telling the administration.

Mitchell was joined by Monterey, California Mayor Clyde Roberson in sending the Obama White House letters expressing “serious concerns” about the potential economic harm to their ports from the use of executive action by the administration to create new federal marine monuments off the coasts.

A chorus of opposition has been rising from fishermen and fishing communities across the country opposing the creation of marine monuments outside of the existing ocean management processes.

New Bedford is the highest-grossing fishing port in the nation; Monterey is one of the most valuable fishing ports in California.

Writing to Council on Environmental Quality Acting Director Christy Goldfuss, Mitchell praised the successes of the current fishing management process, overseen by NOAA, a process that includes the voices of all ocean stakeholders in its deliberations, according to a release from the The National Coalition for Fishing Communities. “The process is far from perfect, but it affords ample opportunity for stakeholders and the public alike to review and comment on policy decisions and for the peer reviewing of the scientific bases of those decisions,” Mitchell wrote.

By contrast, “The use of a parallel process, however well meaning, which has none of the checks and balances employed in the NOAA process, could leave ocean management decisions vulnerable to political considerations in the long run,” said Mitchell.

Roberson’s letter to President Obama was similarly critical of efforts to declare new monuments by executive fiat. Mayor Roberson emphasized the value of the California seamounts to commercial fishermen and the need to strike a balance between environmental protections and fishing concerns. Reaching this balance requires basing decisions on science rather than politics, he wrote.

“Monterey supports publicly transparent, science-based processes in making ocean management decisions such as the mandate embodied in the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act,” Roberson wrote. “This proposal was developed without public knowledge or participation, much less scientific or economic review and analysis. Certainly there was no transparency. “

Both mayors also expressed serious reservations about the potential impact monument declarations would have on their regions’ commercial fishing industries. “In New England, a monument declaration would devastate the red crab, swordfish, and tuna fisheries, as well as the processors and shore side businesses that depend on them. In California, the albacore tuna fishery would be deeply impacted, as would that of the rockfish, spiny lobster, sea urchins, and white sea bass,” said the release.

Read the original post:

Aug 25 2016

Ocean Slime Spreading Quickly Across the Earth

Toxic algae blooms, perhaps accelerated by ocean warming and other climate shifts, are spreading, poisoning marine life and people.

01-toxic-algaeEven as thousands of sea lions were dying in California in 2015 because warm water altered the food web, dozens more were suffering seizures and death after being exposed to domoic acid following the biggest toxic algal bloom on record along the U.S. West Coast. Photograph by Gregory Bull, AP

By Craig Welch

PUBLISHED August 19, 2016

When sea lions suffered seizures and birds and porpoises started dying on the California coast last year, scientists weren’t entirely surprised. Toxic algae is known to harm marine mammals.

But when researchers found enormous amounts of toxin in a pelican that had been slurping anchovies, they decided to sample fresh-caught fish. To their surprise, they found toxins at such dangerous levels in anchovy meat that the state urged people to immediately stop eating them.

The algae bloom that blanketed the West Coast in 2015 was the most toxic one ever recorded in that region. But from the fjords of South America to the waters of the Arabian Sea, harmful blooms, perhaps accelerated by ocean warming and other shifts linked to climate change, are wreaking more havoc on ocean life and people. And many scientists project they will get worse.

“What emerged from last year’s event is just how little we really know about what these things can do,” says Raphael Kudela, a toxic algae expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

It’s been understood for decades, for example, that nutrients, such as fertilizer and livestock waste that flush off farms and into the Mississippi River, can fuel harmful blooms in the ocean, driving low-oxygen dead zones like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Such events have been on the rise around the world, as population centers boom and more nitrogen and other waste washes out to sea.

02-toxic-algaeSome scientists suspect melting Himalayan ice from climate change is changing rain patterns enough to help reduce oxygen in the Arabian Sea, leading to massive green blooms of Noctiluca scintillans, a harmful algae that is threatening to transform the region’s marine food web. Photograph by NASA Earth Observatory

“There’s no question that we are seeing more harmful blooms in more places, that they are lasting longer, and we’re seeing new species in different areas,” says Pat Glibert, a phytoplankton expert at the University of Maryland. “These trends are real.”

But scientists also now see troubling evidence of harmful algae in places nearly devoid of people. They’re seeing blooms last longer and spread wider and become more toxic simply when waters warm. And some are finding that even in places overburdened by poor waste management, climate-related shifts in weather may already be exacerbating problems.

Fish kills stemming from harmful algal blooms are on the rise off the coast of Oman. Earlier this year, algae blooms suffocated millions of salmon in South America, enough to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools. Another bloom is a suspect in the death last year of more than 300 sei whales in Chile.

In the north, blooms are on the rise in places like Greenland, where some scientists suspect the shift is actually melting ice. Just this year, scientists showed that domoic acid from toxic algae was showing up in walrus, bowhead whales, beluga, and fur seals in Alaska’s Arctic, where such algae species weren’t believed to be common.

“We expect to see conditions that are conducive for harmful algal blooms to happen more and more often,” says Mark Wells, with the University of Maine. “We’ve got some pretty good ideas about what will happen, but there will be surprises, and those surprises can be quite radical.”

03-toxic-algaeKathi Lefebvre, a toxic algae expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, collects krill that died en masse along a beach near Homer, Alaska. Tests later showed the dead zooplankton were loaded with toxins associated with a harmful algal blooms.
 Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

The Birth of a Bloom

If you look at seawater under a microscope, what you see may resemble a weird alphabet soup: tiny photosynthetic organisms that can resemble stacks of slender Lincoln logs, stubby mushrooms, balloons, segmented worms, or mini wagon wheels. Some float about in currents; others propel themselves through the water column. As conditions change, the environment can become perfect for one or two to take over. Suddenly these algae may bloom.

“Every organism on this planet has its ideal temperature,” says Chris Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University “In a given water body, as it gets warmer, that’s going to favor the growth of some over others, and in some cases the harmful ones will do better.”

Algae is essential for life, but some species and some blooms can trigger serious harm. Some poison the air people breathe or change the color of the sea. Some accumulate in fish and shellfish, causing seizures, stomach illnesses, even death for the birds, marine mammals, and humans that eat them. Some blooms are so thick that when they finally die they use up oxygen needed by other animals, and leave rafts of dead eels, fish, and crabs in their wake.

In 2015, as a blob of warm water along the U.S. West Coast was breaking temperature records, regular sampling showed that dangerous levels of the biotoxin domoic acid from the algae Pseudo-nitzschia was building up in shellfish. Short-term harvest closures for razor clams and crab aren’t uncommon because while domoic acid doesn’t hurt shellfish, it can cause seizures and death in people who eat infected creatures.

While scientists knew domoic acid accumulates in the head and guts of fish—which are often consumed whole by marine mammals and birds—researchers rarely find these water-soluble toxins in the parts of fish that humans eat. And where most blooms last for weeks, this one dragged on for months. And while most are localized, this one covered vast areas of sea from Santa Barbara to Alaska. So when Kudela and his crew started testing, they found trace amounts of the toxin in the meat of rockfish, halibut, lingcod, and nearly every fish they tested. In anchovies it was far beyond what regulators consider safe.

“Before, even when the fish were toxic, they (regulators) were saying ‘Decapitate it and gut it and it will be fine,’ ” Kudela says. “It definitely raises new questions, like ‘Should we be monitoring things like flatfish on a more routine basis? and ‘Are we really prepared for what’s coming?’ ”

04-toxic-algaeThe algae Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces the toxic domoic acid, was collected along the U.S. West Coast in 2015 during the largest, longest-lasting and most toxic algal bloom on record. Domoic acid can cause seizures, other neurological problems and even death in birds, marine mammals and humans. Photograph by NOAA Fisheries/AP

While the heat that drove this massive bloom may or may not be linked to climate change, scientists say a warming climate will make marine heat waves more common in the future.

And climate change isn’t just about temperature. It will also change how storms and melting ice add moisture to the marine world, make the oceans more corrosive, and alter the mixing of deep cold waters with light-filled seas at the surface. All of that can and will affect how harmful algae grow.

It’s just not always easy to see how.

Tracking Changes in the Arabian Sea

Joaquim Goes, a research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory has been trying to track climate’s role in transforming one of the world’s rapidly changing marine environments, the Arabian Sea.

In the early 2000s, scientists documented blooms of shimmering bioluminescent Noctiluca scintillans, a beautiful green algae that can make the sea light up and sparkle. Now it shows up every year, in ever larger densities and covering more area.

“Globally, I’ve studied lots of ocean basins, and here the change is just massive—this one species is just taking over,” Goes says.

While it’s clear that rising use of fertilizers and massive population growth without corresponding wastewater treatment in places like Mumbai and Karachi are helping fuel this massive change, Goes and some others think that is not the only factor. Rapid melt of Himalayan glaciers is altering monsoon patterns, he says, intensifying them and helping reduce oxygen levels in surface waters, making them more conducive to Noctiluca. That, in turn, is changing what lives there and what they eat.

“Think of it as looking at a forest and over a period of about a decade, all the species have changed,” says Glibert, at Maryland. “The type of algae that grows at the base of the food web set the trajectory for what’s growing at the top of the food web.”

05-toxic-algaeAfter toxic algae was believed to have helped kill dozens of fin and humpback whales in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015, scientists raced to respond to other whale strandings, including this orca, which washed up dead near Petersburg, Alaska, in October. An investigation later showed it likely died of natural causes.
Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic

Goes fears these changes ultimately could spell disaster for that region’s fisheries, which provide tens of millions of dollars and help support life for 120 million people.

Thus far, the creatures that most seem to like to eat this algae are jellyfish and sea-centipede-like creatures known as salps. Those, in turn, are eaten by animals that can thrive in low-oxygen environments, namely sea turtles and squid. Landings of squid already are on the rise in places like Oman, Goes says, while tuna and grouper catches are down. And the low-oxygen environment itself can have acute effects. Just last fall, low-oxygen water along the coast of Oman killed fish for hundreds of kilometers.

Complex Ocean Physics

Still, it’s not always obvious what the trends really show or how all these pieces fit together.

Charles Trick, with the University of Western Ontario, says the physics of ocean environments are so complicated that climate change is likely to worsen algal blooms in a select few places, but not necessarily as a general rule. He is skeptical about climate impacts on blooms in the Arabian Sea, for example, but believes environments like the U.S. West Coast are prime for more massive blooms.

“Everything in this field is controversial,” Trick says. “There’s a lot of enthusiasm to challenge the big questions, but not a lot of data.”

What information there is often isn’t so clear. Kathi Lefebvre, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, has been the one tracking the domoic acid in hundreds of marine mammals in Alaska. The discovery in walrus, bowhead, and other Arctic mammals was a surprise, but it’s not clear if it’s part of a new trend—or simply the way things have always been. No one had ever checked before, so there is no past for Lefebvre to compare to.

“It’s a weird thing—we saw domoic acid in every species we looked at, so they are all being exposed to it,” she says. But domoic acid in high doses sometimes leads to seizure and death, which had never been documented in the Arctic. Has it happened all along, but the region is so sparsely populated that no one noticed? Or are these blooms moving north and still building, potentially responding to warming waters and melting ice?

“It’s pretty clear that if you change temperature, light availability and nutrients, that can absolutely change an ecosystem,” Lefebvre says. “But is it just starting? Is it getting worse? Is it the same as always? I have no idea.”

Read the original post:

Aug 25 2016


August 24, 2016 — The following was released by the National Coalition for Fishing Communities:

WASHINGTON (NCFC) – In letters sent on Friday to the President and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), New Bedford, Massachusetts Mayor Jon Mitchell and Monterey, California Mayor Clyde Roberson expressed “serious concerns” about the potential economic harm to their ports from the use of executive action by the Obama Administration to create new federal marine monuments off the coasts of New England and California. The mayors also emphasized the need for “transparency” and “robust stakeholder input.”

The letters reflect a growing movement from fishermen and fishing communities across the country opposing the creation of marine monuments outside of the existing ocean management processes. New Bedford is the highest-grossing fishing port in the nation, and Monterey is one of the most valuable fishing ports in California.

In his letter to CEQ Acting Director Christy Goldfuss, New Bedford Mayor Mitchell praised the successes of the current fishing-management process, overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – a process that emphasizes including the voices of all ocean stakeholders in its deliberations.

“The process is far from perfect, but it affords ample opportunity for stakeholders and the public alike to review and comment on policy decisions and for the peer reviewing of the scientific bases of those decisions,” he wrote.

The Mayor went on to contrast this with the much more opaque process that has governed the marine monument debate.

“The use of a parallel process, however well-meaning, which has none of the checks and balances employed in the NOAA process, could leave ocean management decisions vulnerable to political considerations in the long run,” he wrote.

 On the other side of the country, Monterey Mayor Roberson’s letter to President Obama was similarly critical of efforts to declare new monuments by executive fiat. Mayor Roberson emphasized the value of the California seamounts to commercial fishermen and the need to strike a balance between environmental protections and fishing concerns. According to Mayor Roberson, reaching this balance requires basing decisions on science, rather than politics.

“[Monterey] supports publically transparent, science-based processes in making ocean management decisions – such as the mandate embodied in the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act,” he wrote. “This proposal was developed without public knowledge or participation, much less scientific or economic review and analysis. Certainly there was no transparency. “

Both Mayors also expressed serious reservations about the potential impact monument declarations would have on their regions’ commercial fishing industries. In New England, a monument declaration would devastate the red crab, swordfish, and tuna fisheries, as well as the processors and shore side businesses that depend on them. In California, the albacore tuna fishery would be deeply impacted, as would that of the rockfish, spiny lobster, sea urchins, and white sea bass.

Mayor Mitchell also noted that while the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has provided “coordinates of a line seaward of the canyons that is acceptable to the industry” the Administration has not provided a concrete proposal. He noted, “if a proposal actually exists, it has not been shared with any of the stakeholders.”

Fishing groups on the East and West Coasts, including many NCFC affiliates, whose members collectively produce the majority of the edible finfish and shellfish harvested from U.S. waters, have expressed opposition to the creation of a new monument via executive order. These organizations include:

  • Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers
  • Alaska Scallop Association
  • American Albacore Fisheries Association
  • American Bluefin Tuna Association (ABTA)
  • American Scallop Association
  • At-Sea Processors Association
  • Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association
  • Blue Water Fishermen’s Association
  • California Fisheries and Seafood Institute
  • California Lobster & Trap Fishermen’s Association
  • California Sea Urchin Commission
  • California Wetfish Producers Association
  • Coalition of Coastal Fisheries
  • Coos Bay Trawlers
  • Directed Sustainable Fisheries
  • Fisheries Survival Fund
  • Garden State Seafood Association
  • Golden King Crab Coalition
  • Groundfish Forum
  • Long Island Commercial Fishing Association
  • Midwater Trawlers Cooperative
  • National Fisheries Institute
  • New England Red Crab Harvester’s Association
  • North Carolina Fisheries Association
  • Oregon Trawl Commission
  • Organized Fishermen of Florida
  • Pacific Seafood Processors Association
  • Pacific Whiting Conservation Cooperative
  • Southeastern Fisheries Association
  • United Catcher Boats
  • Ventura County Commercial Fishermen’s Association
  • Washington Trollers Association
  • West Coast Seafood Processors Association
  • Western Fishboat Owners Association

Read Mayor Mitchell’s letter here

Read Mayor Roberson’s letter here

Aug 15 2016

Proposal would devastate California’s fishing industry

Crab Fishery ToxinCrab pots wait to be loaded onto fishing boats last November at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Ben Margot Associated Press file

By D.B. Pleschner
Special to The Bee


California’s fisheries provide healthy, sustainable food, but that could change under a dangerous new proposal being circulated, until recently, behind closed doors at the Legislature.

California’s fishing community – more than 40 harbors, chambers of commerce, seafood processors and recreational and commercial fishing groups – has united to oppose the proposal to declare virtually all offshore seamounts, ridges and banks off the coast as monuments under the Antiquities Act and permanently close these areas to commercial fishing.

After pursuing rumors, fisheries groups discovered the proposal, along with a sign-on letter encouraging legislative support. But no one bothered to seek any input from recreational and commercial fishermen. Even worse, there has been no scientific review or economic analysis, no public participation and no transparency.

The areas identified in the proposal are indeed special places, rich in marine life and valuable corals, sponges and structures. The seamounts and banks are also very important for fisheries.

Tuna, swordfish, rockfish, spiny lobster, sea urchins, white sea bass and species including mackerels, bonito and market squid are all sustainably fished in Southern and Central California. And in Northern California, albacore tuna and other species provide opportunities to fishermen who, for the past few seasons, have been unable to rely on Chinook salmon and Dungeness crab.

These areas do deserve protection. But policies for protecting resources in federal waters exist under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and other bipartisan laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, which require science-based, peer-reviewed analysis conducted in a fully public and transparent process.

Indeed, most of the areas identified in the proposal are already protected under federal law through the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s designation of essential habitat. These designations were made with full scientific input and extensive public participation.

Fishing – commercial or recreational – does not pose any threat to these areas. In fact, California has the most strictly regulated fisheries in the world.

The proposal misrepresents the possible impacts of fishing and seriously underestimates the harsh economic impact if these areas were closed to commercial fishing.

The backers of this proposal want the president to take unilateral action using the Antiquities Act to declare these productive areas as monuments – a permanent, irreversible executive order that would prohibit commercial fishing forever.

In essence, that’s fishery management by fiat. This proposal was developed with no outreach to fishery scientists and managers, and only after fishermen discovered the plot did proponents come out of the closet.

The proposal goes against the bipartisan legacy of the nation’s fishery management laws and policies, whose hallmark is transparency and which have a long track record of working successfully to protect marine resources.

We believe legislative leaders should oppose it, as should President Barack Obama. In short, the Antiquities Act is not the place to manage fisheries.

Read the original post:

Aug 11 2016

The Blob That Cooked the Pacific

1Thousands of California sea lions, such as this one on rocks near Canada’s Vancouver Island, died in 2014 and 2015. Many starved as they struggled to find food in an unusually warm eastern Pacific.

By Craig Welch | Photographs by Paul Nicklen

This story appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.


The first fin whale appeared in Marmot Bay, where the sea curls a crooked finger around Alaska’s Kodiak Island. A biologist spied the calf drifting on its side, as if at play. Seawater flushed in and out of its open jaws. Spray washed over its slack pink tongue. Death, even the gruesome kind, is usually too familiar to spark alarm in the wild north. But late the next morning, the start of Memorial Day weekend, passengers aboard the ferry Kennicott spotted another whale bobbing nearby. Her blubber was thick. She looked healthy. But she was dead too.

Kathi Lefebvre is talking about the whales as we crunch across a windy, rocky beach, 200 miles north of Kodiak. In a typical year eight whales are found dead in the western Gulf of Alaska. But in 2015 at least a dozen popped up in June alone, their bodies so buoyant that gulls used them as fishing platforms. All summer the Pacific Ocean heaved rotting remains into rocky coves along the more than 1,000-mile stretch from Anchorage to the Aleutian Islands. Whole families of brown bears feasted on their carcasses.

Lefebvre, a research scientist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, had examined eye fluid from one of the carcasses in a failed attempt to winnow the cause of death. Now the two of us are on Kachemak Bay in Homer, Alaska, inching toward a wheezing, dying sea otter sprawled out on the shore. Otter deaths are skyrocketing on the shoreline beneath the snowcapped Kenai Mountains, so Lefebvre is here to see whether the fates of these otters and whales are somehow intertwined.

2Jellyfish-like animals known as “by-the-wind sailors” blanket an Oregon beach near an old shipwreck. Some of the same unusual wind patterns and currents that recently warmed the Pacific pushed these floating creatures by the millions onto beaches from Southern California to British Columbia.
Photograph by Tiffany Boothe, Seaside Aquarium

In the past few years death had become a bigger part of life in the ocean off North America’s West Coast. Millions of sea stars melted away in tide pools from Santa Barbara, California, to Sitka, Alaska, their bodies dissolving, their arms breaking free and wandering off. Hundreds of thousands of ocean-feeding seabirds tumbled dead onto beaches. Twenty times more sea lions than average starved in California. I watched scientists lift sea otter carcasses onto orange sleds as they perished in Homer—79 turned up dead there in one month. By year’s end, whale deaths in the western Gulf of Alaska would hit a staggering 45. Mass fatalities can be as elemental in nature as wildfire in a lodgepole pine forest, whipping through quickly, killing off the weak and clearing the way for rebirth. But these mysterious casualties all shared one thing: They overlapped with a period when West Coast ocean waters were blowing past modern temperature records.

As hotter oceans destroy coral reefs in the tropics and melting ice alters life in the Arctic, it’s been easy to overlook how much warm water can reshape temperate seas. No more. Between 2013 and earlier this year, some West Coast waters grew so astonishingly hot that the marine world experienced unprecedented upheaval. Animals showed up in places they’d never been. A toxic bloom of algae, the biggest of its kind on record, shut down California’s crab industry for months. Key portions of the food web crashed. It’s not clear if greenhouse gas emissions exacerbated this ocean heat wave or if the event simply represented an outer edge of natural weather and climate patterns. But the phenomenon left daunting questions: Was this a quirk, an unlikely confluence of extremes that conspired to make life harsh for some sea creatures? Or was it, as one scientist says, a “dress rehearsal”—a preview, perhaps, of what hotter seas may one day bring as climate change unleashes its fever in the Pacific?

3Humpback whales feast on fish in Monterey Bay, California. Anchovies were scarce in many areas in 2015, but so many congregated in the bay that Jim Harvey, director of Moss Landing Marine Labs, watched from his window as 50 or 60 whales dined on themat once. “That’s not normal,” he says.

While Lefebvre and I are pondering our next move, a radio call comes in. Another dead otter has surfaced on Homer Spit, five miles away. We retrace our steps to a dusty parking lot, pile into a pickup, and head off.

Beginning in late 2013, a bewildering patch of warm water formed in the Gulf of Alaska. A stubborn atmospheric high-pressure system, nicknamed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” was keeping storms at bay. Just as blowing across hot coffee frees heat, winds usually churn and cool the sea’s surface. Instead, heat within this shifting mass, which University of Washington climatologist Nick Bond dubbed “the blob,” built up and morphed into a wider patch along North America’s West Coast, where it met warm-water masses creeping north. Sea temperatures in some places rose seven degrees Fahrenheit higher than average. Some patches of ocean were hotter than ever recorded. At its peak the warm water covered about 3.5 million square miles from Mexico to Alaska, an area larger than the contiguous United States.


Lauren E. James, NGM staff. Sources: Nick Bond, University of Washington; Raphael Kudela, university of California, Santa cruz

Did planet-warming carbon dioxide from fossil fuels contribute to this event? No one knows for sure. One controversial notion suggests that the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice is making the polar jet stream wavier, allowing weather systems to persist longer. A more accepted theory pegs this heat to normal atmospheric fluctuations in the jet stream triggered by warmth in the tropics. But even researchers subscribing to that theory don’t necessarily rule out a secondary role for climate change. “Is long-term warming somehow the puppeteer controlling things in the background?” asks Nate Mantua, at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz, California. “I haven’t seen proof, but it’s clearly a prime suspect.”

Alaska’s Sick and Dying Otters

4A dying sea otter takes its last breaths. The population of sea otters in Kachemak Bay is considered healthy, but the number of strandings near Homer, Alaska, in 2015 surprised scientists and volunteers, who often responded to several otter deaths in a day.

Unscrambling this weird behavior is difficult because the world’s largest ocean is so confounding to begin with. Overlapping patterns that can last for decades already drive temperature swings. Every few years or decades the eastern Pacific flips from a food-rich, cold-water place to something warmer, a cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. El Niño, the periodic tropical warming, boosts temperatures in North America. An ocean freeway, the California Current, ushers cool water south from Canada to Baja California. Along the way, winds push warm surface waters offshore, causing upwelling, which draws much cooler, nutrient-rich seas from below.

All these volatile shifts can redistribute marine life. It just doesn’t usually wind up like this. “When all is said and done, I think people will see this as the most economically and ecologically consequential event in our historical record,” Mantua says of the recent warming.

Seeking to understand the magnitude of this episode, I am miles off the Oregon coast, weeks before visiting Alaska. The Elakha, a 54-foot research boat, is cutting through rolling chop beneath a milky sky. Bill Peterson, in jeans and a weathered craft-beer T-shirt, kneels on deck, face pressed into a red cooler. It holds the contents of a net his colleagues just hauled up from the sloshing depths. The NOAA oceanographer is here to show me how thoroughly the eastern Pacific has changed. “Oh my, that’s ugly,” he says. Over his shoulder, I glance down at the bottom of the ocean food web. I see only slop the color of motor oil. That’s his point.

5Near Petersburg, Alaska, a worker examines the dorsal fin of an orca. This animal likely died of natural causes, but exposure to toxic algae created by unusually warm water is a suspected cause in the deaths of many humpback and fin whales.

Every two weeks for 20 years, Peterson’s team has come here to gather the minuscule plants and animals that form the foundation of one of the planet’s most productive marine systems. The prize course in this buffet is supposed to be inch-long krill. Shaped like shrimps, they are gobbled by auklets, cohos, basking sharks, and whales. Anchovies and sardines eat them and then get wolfed by bigger fish and sea lions. At this time of year, krill should be abundant, but Peterson’s haul reveals mostly soupy algae and small jellyfish, which provide little sustenance. His team hasn’t seen krill in months. “It’s been like this nonstop,” he says.

Higher ocean temperatures have thrown this system out of whack. Not long after the warmth arrived, shelled octopuses more common in the South Pacific appeared off Southern California. Tropical sunfish and blue sharks were caught in the North Pacific. Market squid, common off California, laid eggs in southeast Alaska. A few venomous yellow-bellied sea snakes from Central America slithered across beaches near Los Angeles. Peterson’s team caught tropical or subtropical zooplankton he’d never seen: rainbow-hued, beetle-shaped copepods; minuscule iridescent creatures from Hawaii; tiny crustaceans with cobalt egg sacs. He cataloged nearly 20 new species that belonged far away.

Compared with krill, these zooplankton were limp-lettuce side salads: smaller and less nutritious. As this low-cal diet coursed through the food web, larval walleye pollock, common in the Gulf of Alaska, reached their lowest numbers in three decades. Halibut caught in Cook Inlet had mushy flesh—a syndrome associated with poor nutrition. Coho salmon returned to West Coast streams as malnourished runts. These changes coincided with other shifts. Sardines, already in decline, decreased so much that an industry made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row shut down for the first time since rebounding from its collapse in the 1950s. Sardine and anchovy populations are cyclical; their precipitous drop likely had little to do with warm water. But the impact was more pronounced because the unusual heat redistributed the remaining fish. Anchovies, already dwindling, seemed to vanish almost everywhere except Monterey Bay, where they gathered in great numbers, creating a weird feeding frenzy. At one point, 50 or more whales dined in the bay at once. In the Pacific Northwest humpbacks cruised into the Columbia River in search of food. Birds suffered too. At least a hundred thousand blue-footed Cassin’s auklets, small gray-feathered island nesters that eat krill, starved to death. It was one of the biggest die-offs of birds in U.S. history. Then, months later, hundreds of thousands of common murres died too.

Perhaps most visible were the skinny, sick sea lion pups that surfed ashore in California, loose fur drooping over bones, looking like children wrapped in parents’ clothes. They collapsed under porches and parked trucks. One curled into a chair on a hotel patio. Another slipped into a booth at a seaside restaurant. Without sardines or anchovies, their mothers ate junk-food diets of squid, hake, and rockfish, and weaned pups early. More than 3,000 were stranded in five months.

Chugging back to his office in Newport, Oregon, Peterson is baffled. After a lifetime studying the sea, he finds this warm ocean unfamiliar and disorienting, “like looking out the window and seeing a macaw fly by.”

It’s not that the blob is the new normal. It isn’t. Few if any of these changes are permanent. Even if they were, it wouldn’t mean the sea was dying. Ocean life will continue. But the blob offers something of an analogue for future seas under climate change. And marine life in this sea of tomorrow will look very different.

Warmer temperatures speed fish metabolisms, requiring them to eat more, just as their food declines. Some fish may see tinier bodies, more disease, and, in many cases, falling populations, according to recent studies. Already, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, many fish and plankton are heading toward the poles in search of cooler temperatures. As productive areas grow scarcer with less cold water, fish and predators will congregate in fewer places, creating new challenges. During the recent heat wave, more West Coast whales appeared to get tangled in fishing gear or debris. From 2000 to 2012, rescue crews fielded about 10 reports a year. Forty-eight were confirmed in 2015.

And when creatures show up somewhere new, our relationship with the sea can shift too. In Pacifica, California, I visit Richard Shafer, a lanky 58-year-old electrician who free-dives for fish with a speargun. As the heat wave drove game fish north from Mexico, fishing charters off Los Angeles had their best season in memory. So in August 2015, Shafer took a charter to an offshore bank west of San Diego. He speared a yellowtail, and then a hungry sea lion darted past. Knowing that sea lions steal big fish, especially in the absence of sardines, Shafer pulled his yellowtail close and swam toward the boat, only to be bitten on the wrist by a seven-foot smooth hammerhead. These sharks are rarely seen in California, and rarely attack, yet there were several encounters in 2015 during what one scientist called “an endless parade of hammerheads” lured by warm water. The animal severed Shafer’s tendon and fractured a pinkie and knuckle, requiring 40 stitches. Each change in the sea can trigger another that no one sees coming.

The sky pinks with the dying day as Kathi Lefebvre hops from a pickup truck onto a pebbly stretch of Homer Spit and stares down at the dead otter. Sea wash muddies the pale fur of its face. Otters in previous years mostly died from complications of a streptococcal infection. This year some of the dead look emaciated, while others look almost fit. Interns with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge don blue latex gloves and begin an examination. One intern is moved nearly to tears. Another tells Lefebvre about an otter she’d seen shuddering in spasms the week before. Lefebvre perks up.

“The thing you’re describing, the tremors in the whole body?” Lefebvre says. “I’ve seen that. In sea lions.”

In 1998, as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Lefebvre learned that dozens of sea lions were turning up sick and twitchy. Lefebvre had a hunch why: Each spring, a single-celled toxic alga called Pseudo-nitzschia blooms in small patches, usually for a week, maybe two, producing a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which accumulates in shellfish. When ingested by people, this toxin can cause seizures, memory loss, even death. It also can harm wildlife. In 1961, a Santa Cruz newspaper told of a mysterious invasion of sooty shearwaters “fresh from a feast of anchovies.” The seabirds bashed into windows and died on streets. Alfred Hitchcock used the incident as part of his inspiration for The Birds. Scientists tracking the mystery decades later unearthed old samples of plankton pulled from Monterey Bay in 1961. They detected high levels of Pseudo-nitzschia.

When Lefebvre found domoic acid in the feces of sick sea lions in 1998, it was the first evidence that this type of toxic bloom could hurt marine mammals. And blooms that year were particularly bad. El Niño had brought withering ocean heat to California, igniting the most ferocious bloom on record—until last year.

In April 2015 algae bloomed, but instead of dissipating after a few weeks, the bloom grew into a monster, morphing and shifting, stretching over 2,000 miles, from California’s Channel Islands to Kodiak. No one had seen anything like it. Some shellfish harvests closed along the coast. Toxin concentrations were 30 times greater than what would normally be considered high. Tests found domoic acid in some fish, such as anchovies, at amounts too dangerous for people to eat, a rarity. The toxin appeared to sicken hundreds of sea lions, seabirds, porpoises, and seals. Video from Washington State showed a sea lion suffering a toxin-induced seizure, something never seen that far north. Blooms dragged into November.

Then there were Alaska’s dead whales, primarily fins and humpbacks. Most were too remote or too far gone to test. A few that washed up in British Columbia showed traces of domoic acid, but the toxin flushes so quickly it’s impossible to know if the dose was large or small. Scientists lacked proof, but most shared a theory: Whales ate krill, copepods, or fish dosed by algal toxins, which killed them outright or scrambled their brains, hampering navigation and feeding. “Given that we’ve ruled out most other scenarios, what is most prominent in my mind is toxic algae,” says Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.

Standing on Homer Spit, Lefebvre wonders aloud if algae played a role in killing Alaska’s otters. She sets down plastic bags to collect specimens and pulls on gloves. Leaning over the stiffening otter, she bends to her work.

True to its B-movie name, the blob began fading in December 2015, its heat sinking deep into the sea with the arrival of a powerful El Niño. But divining what this heat portends will take years. New research suggests that heat waves like the blob may become more common and intense because of climate change. Scientists foresee “higher extremes, more unusual events. It gets more chaotic,” says Raphael Kudela, an ocean sciences professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Scientists project that toxic blooms will be more frequent, more widespread, and more toxic.

That could spell trouble for people too. I meet Dick Ogg in his paint-splattered khakis, strolling down a wooden ramp at Bodega Bay’s Spud Point Marina. He’s rebuilding a hold on the Karen Jeanne. The commercial fisherman chases salmon, albacore, and sablefish but makes his real money gathering Dungeness crab. Yet his boat hasn’t moved much in months. Crab remained unsafe to eat long after toxic blooms vanished, so California delayed its crab harvest for months, at a loss of $48 million. The governor sought disaster relief from the U.S. government. Out-of-work deckhands lived off gift cards and a marina food bank. The closest Ogg came to fishing was helping regulators catch crab to test for toxins. “A lot of folks are really hurting,” Ogg says glumly.

6Market squid, which typically spawn off California, swim by their eggs near Klemtu, British Columbia. In 2015 squid eggs in the eastern Pacific were found as far north as Alaska.

Yet not all of what the blob produced is a harbinger of something. Given warming over decades, rather than the blob’s span of roughly two years, plants and animals may adapt or move. Some die-offs might have happened without the blob. Sea star deaths, while hastened by the warm water, were actually caused by a virus that hit well before the blob. California sea lion populations may simply have grown too large.

And more changes are coming. Rising seas are reshaping coastlines. Natural low-oxygen zones in deep waters are expanding. Ocean acidification is making life harder for shellfish. Predicting the future is messy—especially when we barely understand the present.

Lefebvre never solved the otter mystery. By year’s end, 304 were dead—nearly five times the recent average. One-third of the carcasses that scientists tested were positive for toxic algae. But strep infection was diagnosed as the primary cause of death for most otters. Any role that the blob played in exacerbating the infection remains a riddle. Did algal toxins weaken the animals? Did warm water somehow make things worse? “We still don’t know how all these tweaks in our world come together,” Lefebvre says.

Weeks later, I have a similar chat with Julia Parrish, a bird expert at the University of Washington, who has been tracking the murres’ deaths. She doesn’t know if the seabirds chased scarce food to strange places, got mixed up by domoic acid, or were pushed ashore by winds. “I am still just mystified,” she tells me.

And that, more than anything, I now realize, may be our new normal: the unfathomable gulf between the sea we thought we knew and the one we’re rapidly creating.

Read/Subscribe to National Geographic Magazine for the complete article, photos and video.

Aug 7 2016

Sandy Smith: Marine monument plan threatens local fishing industry


A new proposal being circulated among lawmakers hopes to convince President Obama to use his executive power to designate seamounts — underwater mountains — as marine monuments off the coast of California.

On the surface, that may sound like a good idea, but a deeper review of the proposal reveals that it threatens to curtail commercial fisheries as well — and that’s not good for Ventura County.

Commercial fishing operations based at the Port of Hueneme, Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard and the Ventura Harbor serve as foundations of our local economy. Our local fishermen and fish processors rely on these extremely productive fishing grounds, including seamounts, to produce millions of pounds of seafood every year, including tuna, mackerel and market squid.

Closure of these areas to fishing would inflict serious harm to the industry and our communities.

As an example of the impacts to Ventura County, the current squid-landing operation at the Port of Hueneme alone supports nearly 1,400 direct and indirect jobs in the local community, and about $11 million in state and local tax revenues annually.

It also provides $56 million of revenue for local businesses dependent upon existing squid operations.

Not only would the proposal cause serious economic harm, but is it really even necessary?

California already has the most strictly regulated fisheries in the world.

Precautionary policies for protecting resources in federal waters exist under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, as well as under many other bipartisan laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act.

All of these laws require science-based analysis that is conducted in a fully public and transparent process.

But that’s not what’s happening here. The document “The Case for Protecting California’s Seamounts, Ridges and Banks” was drafted and advanced with no science, no analysis and virtually no public engagement or outreach to the parties who would be most affected by this unilateral action.

That’s why the Ventura County Economic Development Association has joined more than 40 groups representing California’s harbors, communities and fisheries — both recreational and commercial — to oppose the proposed designation of marine monuments off our coast that prohibit commercial fishing.

Such a designation ignores existing law — the Magnuson Act — that is mandated to manage fisheries and whose transparent, science-based process is heralded worldwide for its success. It also contradicts the Obama administration’s own National Ocean Policy Plan, which promises transparency and “robust” stakeholder involvement.

We must not close to fishing a patchwork of areas without scientific analysis or economic assessment. And we must use the best available science to manage fisheries. Otherwise, it’s fishery management by fiat.

Sandy Smith is a former Ventura mayor and City Council member and current chairman of the Ventura County Economic Development Association, which gives members education and policy guidance on issues affecting the economic climate of the greater business community.

Originally posted:

Aug 5 2016

Agencies Mull Options to Prepare for Future Domoic Acid Events

CDPH Crab Testing 7CDPH staff collects viscera from cooked crabs during domoic acid testing in 2015.   photo courtesy CDPH


In 2015/2016, there was an unprecedented bloom of a single-celled plant called Pseudo-nitzschia in ocean waters, which resulted in  elevated levels of domoic acid in Dungeness crab and rock crab. The elevated levels of domoic acid in crab along the West Coast impacted California fisheries from Santa Barbara to the Oregon Border.

The conditions that support the growth of Pseudo-nitzschia are impossible to predict, but tend to be more common in the warmer months of the year. Crustaceans, fish and shellfish are capable of accumulating elevated levels of domoic acid in their viscera and muscle tissue.

Domoic acid was discovered in California in 1991.  Shortly after, in 1993, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) initiated its marine biotoxin monitoring program and now, through a network of volunteers, routinely collects phytoplankton and bivalve shellfish samples from a number of sampling sites along the coast year-round. As elevated levels of domoic acid are identified in bivalve shellfish in a particular area, additional species (anchovies, sardines, crabs, lobster, etc.) are sampled and analyzed for domoic acid content. CDPH coordinates with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to collect pre-season Dungeness crab samples each fall from representative locations along the coastline. This pre-season monitoring ensures that Dungeness crab do not contain elevated levels of domoic acid when the fishery opens.

Last year, CDPH found elevated levels of domoic acid in Dungeness and rock crab along a large portion of the California coastline. When CDPH finds that crab contain a level of domoic acid in the viscera that exceeds the federal action level, a health advisory is issued to notify the public of the risk of consumption.  The 2015/16 season was also unique in that it was the first year that CDPH isolated domoic acid from the meat of both Dungeness and rock crab.  Continued harvest of crab with elevated levels of domoic acid from an area under advisory and offering those crab for sale puts the fisherman and subsequent distributors and retailers in violation of the law.

During the 2015/2016 event, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, in consultation with CDPH, determined that the fishery should be closed for both recreational and commercial fishing in order to avoid potentially serious human health impacts. A recommendation to close the fishery was initiated by California state health agencies when Dungeness crab viscera or meat exceeded the action level.

The agencies involved have reviewed the 2015/16 event and evaluated options for handling future events. While an event of this magnitude is unlikely to occur very often, state agencies plan to prepare a response in case another event occurs. The agencies plan to discuss options and hear additional feedback and ideas from the Dungeness crab industry later this month.

Read more about preparations being made for future events in the full version of the multi-agency memorandum Domoic Acid Background and Potential Option for Future Events.  Visit the Ocean Protection Council website for information regarding opportunities to join the discussion.

from Memorandum issued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Public Health, and California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

Aug 1 2016

Consider the Crab


Lori French, the daughter-in-law of a crab fisherman, the wife of another, and the mother of a third, placed two large bowls on a table. The one labeled “California” sat empty. The other, reading “Oregon,” was filled to the brim with bright-lavender-and-orange Dungeness crabs. It was early February, the night before the annual hearing of the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture at the state capitol, and French, who’s the president of a nonprofit called Central Coast Women for Fisheries, had organized a banquet that was part festive crab feed, part bare-knuckled lobbying effort.

For the benefit of her attendees, who included elected officials, bureaucrats, scientists, and fishermen and their families, she had shipped hundreds of pounds of Dungeness down from Oregon, where, unlike in California, the annual crab season was already under way. She believed that state officials were being too cautious in prohibiting commercial crabbing due to an outbreak of toxic domoic acid, an embargo that had decimated the fortunes of some 1,800 crab-fishing captains and crews in California. Domoic acid, she pointed out, had neither killed nor caused a reported sickening of anyone so far this year. Washington State had let commercial fishermen on the water. Why not reopen the waters in California?

It wouldn’t be that easy. The California Department of Public Health requires scientists to confirm two consecutive clean tests for potentially harmful toxins in locally caught crabs. Since the fall, at least one of every two tests had reported unacceptably high levels of domoic acid, which can poison all kinds of sea life and can sicken and potentially kill humans. By the time I caught up with French again in mid-March, several weeks after the banquet, the state’s crabbers were still out of luck. One recent test had come back clear, French told me over the phone. With one more clean bill of health, her husband and hundreds of other fishermen working the coastline from Santa Barbara up to Crescent City would have been able to drop pots and catch crabs. But when the subsequent test results came back, they weren’t good: A crab had been found with domoic acid levels in its organs at 38 parts per million, 8 above the cutoff level. French was devastated: “Our last bit of hope was just jerked away,” she said.

Through her organization, French knows fishermen and their families across California. The day before our chat, she’d spoken to one fisherman whose house was on the verge of foreclosure. Today she’d talked to another who had found a job in Washington but needed $200 to travel there. Despite fundraising dinners held in port towns along the coast, need outpaced money. French was amassing a long waiting list of fishing families requiring assistance. Pain crept into her voice when she talked about the food banks that had sprung up at the docks: “We’re the people who provide food, and we don’t have any.”

The Frenches are better off than many of the families for whom crab fishing is a way of life. Lori’s father-in-law bought agricultural land on the Central Coast in the ’70s. After he was killed coming back into the Morro Bay harbor in 1987, the farm—on which they grow avocados—passed to her and her husband, Jeff. Jeff has been in the fishing business since he was 16, and the Frenches now own two boats: the Nadine, a 53-footer, and the 42-foot Langosta II. But with the boats both idle, the Frenches had to rely solely on their other sources of income. They sell eggs to pay the grocery bills, and Lori works part-time as an office manager for a construction firm. Now they were considering putting the back bedroom up on Airbnb.

After we talked, French sent me an email. Make sure, she wrote, to emphasize that nobody had gotten sick this year from eating crabs. In fact, the Frenches knew some fishermen who had eaten Dungeness just the other day and had no problems. They would never want to sell something unsafe, she said, and she was sure that the crabs along California’s coast were harmless. “We’re not Chipotle,” she said.

It’s hard to imagine any Northern California food industry more local and sustainable—call it ocean-to-table—than crab fishing. A crew of guys (they’re almost always guys) on a boat drop big metal pots rigged with bait—squid, mackerel, maybe clams—into the water directly off our coast. Then, a day later, they come back and lug the pots up, loaded with crawling, snapping Metacarcinus magister, bound for markets and restaurants mere hours (or minutes) away from the point of capture.

But crab fishing is sustainable only if the ocean waters that the crabs swim in aren’t poisonous—and for five months of the 2015–16 crabbing season, they were. A vast toxic algae bloom, one of the largest ever recorded, produced enough domoic acid to effectively kill most of the season, and although the crab fishery finally did open, an ominous shadow had fallen over the entire coast. And not just for people who rely on crabbing for their livelihood: The great crab shutdown of 2016 was one of those events that inspire ominous thoughts in many coastal dwellers about the fragility of our food supply and the vulnerability of our producers. We’ve gone in just a few short years from theorizing about what might happen someday in a changing climate to grappling with the harsh realities of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch in which human impacts on the environment can no longer be ignored. This is a story about the instability of the seafood we eat and the degenerative health of the water it comes from. But mostly it’s a story about people who fish for crab and what happened the year they couldn’t.

In the same way that Hemingway described going bankrupt, the 2015–16 Dungeness crab season fell apart gradually, then suddenly. In the winter of 2012–13, an area of high atmospheric pressure parked in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Dubbed the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge by a graduate student at Stanford, it deflected westerly winds away from the state. Normally, those winds churn the oceans, helping cooler water at lower depths well up toward the surface. With lower rates of upwelling, the water off the Pacific coast reached warmer temperatures than ever before recorded. At their peaks in 2014 and 2015, water temperatures were recorded at more than five degrees Celsius above normal, according to Clarissa Anderson, a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Cruz.

Nicholas Bond, the state of Washington’s climatologist, nicknamed the patch of warm water, which at times reached all the way from Alaska to Mexico, the Blob, and like its B-movie namesake, it wreaked havoc. The atypically warm water likely played a role in nourishing a vast algae bloom stretching from Santa Barbara to Alaska, 40 miles wide and 650 feet deep, whose poisonous by-products included domoic acid and paralytic shellfish toxins. Charismatic megafauna like sea lions washed up on beaches, apparently starving. You probably saw stories on Facebook about an inordinate number of sick seal pups being taken to the Marine Mammal Center in Marin to be rehabilitated—it was all connected. Although this year’s El Niño caused the algae bloom to more or less dissipate, the closure of the crab season had been set in motion.

In May 2015 at the docks of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, scientists launched person-size robotic submersibles packed with sensors and instruments. By the end of the month, these “biochemistry labs in a can” had returned with the news: Domoic acid, a naturally occurring organic molecule that usually dissipates harmlessly, was gathering at alarming rates. During a normal year, concentrations of 1,000 nanograms of the acid per liter of seawater would count as high. Last spring, Monterey Bay reached 10 to 30 times that level. By June, dead anchovies were washing ashore at Moss Landing, between Santa Cruz and Monterey, showing high levels of domoic acid in their bodies.

Biologists and public health officials were understandably alarmed by the findings. After the continent’s first recorded outbreak of domoic acid poisoning, which sickened at least 107 people and killed 3 in Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1987, scientists began to study it in earnest. The U.S. National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network keeps a dossier online: In 1991, domoic acid was discovered in the bodies of dead pelicans and cormorants in Monterey Bay—and soon after in the bodies of razor clams and Dungeness crabs in Oregon and Washington. Over five days in January 1996, 150 brown pelicans died at the tip of Baja California, likely after they’d eaten contaminated mackerel. Researchers have tied a series of sea lion miscarriages and pup deaths in the Channel Islands to domoic acid poisoning in the brains and bodies of the fetuses and newborns. In February of this year, Frances Gulland, a scientist who works at the Marine Mammal Center, published a paper reporting domoic acid poisoning in marine mammals off the Alaskan coast—the farthest north ever detected. Thirty large whales died in the Gulf of Alaska last summer, with domoic acid as a prime suspect. Domoic-acid-producing toxic algae blooms (the algae’s scientific name is Pseudo-nitzschia) have been found around the world, including off the coasts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, the Netherlands, Japan, Korea, Spain, and New Zealand and, closest to home, in Monterey Bay last May.

The question everyone wants the answer to, of course, is whether the extraordinarily large algae bloom that led to this year’s domoic acid outbreak was caused by global warming. Scientists are hesitant to assign a single cause to such phenomena, but they are fairly uniform in their conclusion that catastrophic natural events like the drought-worsening Ridiculously Resilient Ridge and the Pseudo-nitzschia-spawning warm-water Blob are a preview of worse times to come. Writing in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, a team of Stanford scientists said that events like the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge “occur much more frequently in the present climate than in the absence of human emissions.” (A follow-up paper this year by the same team buttressed that conclusion.)

Though they are reticent about dealing a final verdict, scientists are increasingly worried that the anomalous could become the norm—that algae blooms and toxin outbreaks may well happen again, and with increased frequency and potentially worse consequences, as the climate changes.

Bodega Bay is “about an hour and a half on the freeway. Or two if you take the coast highway.” So says a character to Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which, coincidentally, was partially inspired by a mass die-off of seabirds in 1961 that scientists now link to a domoic acid outbreak. I drove up on the freeway, but it took me over two hours to putter from my apartment in Oakland to the Fishetarian restaurant in Bodega Bay. There, on a weekday morning in March, I met Shane Lucas, who paused from slinging fried cod sandwiches (mayonnaise, hot sauce, delicious) to talk about the season. After watching the wholesaler on the dock next to his sell Dungeness for years, he finally leased a boat with a permit and bought $50,000 worth of crab pots. “I thought I could make it back in two weeks,” he said. Now the pots were in dry dock under a nearby tree. “At least they look pretty, and they’ll keep until next year.”

Once you notice the pots, round metal wire traps about 18 inches high and a yard across, you see them everywhere, piled in backyards and lining the roads, standing at attention like an army that hasn’t left the barracks. There must have been dozens at the Tides, the town’s main wholesaler. Inside, a sign on a bulletin board had a forlorn message: “Help Our Fishermen. Bring food donations to the Spud Point Marina Office. Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm.”

At the entrance to the Spud Point Marina, hundreds of crab pots dried in the sun. Across the street, the Spud Point Crab Co., a restaurant housed in a small shack, looked deserted. I was there to meet Dick Ogg, the captain of the fishing boat Karen Jeanne. He rested his weathered hands and chipped fingernails on a table inside the boat’s cabin as his two dogs, Buster and Nessie, ran around. Had this been a rough season for him? I asked, a little weakly. “Rough?” he chuckled. “That’s kind of an understatement.”

Ogg, 63, has fished recreationally his whole life—he still free-dives for abalone. Around 2000, he began to transition away from his job as an electrician and move into commercial fishing; now he and his crew fish for Dungeness, salmon, and black cod. He proudly showed me pictures of cod he’s caught, beaming like they were his grandchildren. The captains and deckhands in Bodega Bay rely on salmon in the summer and Dungeness in the winter. Last year’s salmon season was a disaster, but at least it opened. Ogg had hoped a strong crab season would pick up the slack. This, too, would be a disappointment.

In a typical year, it would have gone like this: About 60 days before the start of the season, Ogg and his two deckhands would have begun to prep the Karen Jeanne. Then they’d have waited for the all clear from the state, which usually happens in November. As a group, the fishermen would have negotiated a price for their catch with wholesalers before heading out. “If the weather allows, we’ll fish every single day” from around Thanksgiving time through Chinese New Year in February. Crabs depending, they’ll sometimes even fish into April, Ogg said.

The job is exhausting, but it pays. The first time that Ogg worked with his current crew, a few years ago, they pulled 70 pots loaded with Dungeness out of the water—over 7,000 pounds’ worth—in a single run. After they off-loaded, the crew wanted to call it a day. Ogg wanted to head out again. “They said they were tired. I said, ‘OK, but you realize that run was roughly $18,000. You want to give up another $18,000 tonight?’” (Ogg rules with a light hand—the crew won a rest.) Generally, deckhands receive between 10 and 15 percent of the proceeds from the catch, although some captains deduct costs before splitting the money. (Ogg doesn’t.) The most profitable part of the season is around the holidays. Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, a crew member can make $30,000, amounting to 80 percent of the year’s income.

The hopes for a year like that were dashed early on, when the state closed the commercial crab fishery on November 6 of last year. The Department of Fish and Wildlife tapped Ogg as one of its unpaid volunteers to collect crab samples, which were then delivered to a lab in Richmond to be tested for domoic acid levels. So instead of hauling hundreds of crabs, the Karen Jeanne spent the winter catching six at a time—no more, no less—from three different depths at predesignated locations. Up and down the state, nervous fishermen reloaded Fish and Wildlife’s website every morning to see whether the little red dot next to “Dungeness crab” had turned green, indicating that the season was open. “When I started realizing this wasn’t going to happen,” said Ogg, “my objective was to find income for the deckhands. Most of the captains can tough it out, but the crews don’t have anything. They are young families, young guys, just hoping and waiting that everything will work out.”

The Spud Point Marina Advisory Board collected donations and passed out $100 Safeway gift cards to the crew members every month. Community members started a food bank in the harbor office. Some guys moved to live on the boats. Nobody wanted to say it, but drinking, always a problem among fishermen, became a bigger one. Although it was possible to find jobs on land, it was difficult, because the crabbers needed to be ready to fish at short notice. Ogg helped arrange day jobs for his crew doing electrical work. Others worked as substitute teachers, day laborers, or Christmas tree sellers.

Over a life on the water, Ogg has watched the changes roll by like waves. Forty years ago, he could find salmon in Bodega Bay. Not anymore. Albacore and rockfish would congregate in the Cordell Banks to the south, but it became a marine sanctuary in the ’80s, so he can no longer fish there. Last year, the salmon, starving, possibly because of low supplies of krill, turned to eating hard bait like anchovy and sardines. Usually the salmon’s flesh is red, like the licorice rope that the crew keeps on the boat, but last year it turned dry and tasteless and an unhealthy-seeming pink. During this last year, Ogg witnessed the most significant changes in the ocean that he’d ever seen: “It went from a cooler, krill-laden ocean to basically sterile up and down the coastline.” The domoic acid, he thinks, may have even affected whales. “They came right under the boat—that’s the first time that’s happened,” he said. “When we’re pulling, the whales will come up to sit and watch. They never used to do that. I keep thinking they are eating [domoic acid] and getting drunk.”

I mentioned that domoic acid causes amnesia and disorientation, and that the whales may indeed have been poisoned. He nodded sadly. I changed the subject and asked how he likes to eat crab. Cioppino or cracked? He lightened. “I’ll eat crab occasionally, but after you’ve seen hundreds of thousands of them, you don’t want to see it anymore. The boys”—that’s what he calls his crew—“eat it, though. It’s good for them.”

I asked him whether he thought that this year was an anomaly or part of a longer trend. The mood darkened again. Although he thought that much of what happened this year was cyclical, he was worried about the long term. “There’s a lot of young people in this business,” he said. “We have to do something to promote them. Otherwise, the industry is going to pass away.”

Although wounded, the state’s fishermen pulled through. The end of the closure came as a shock, a welcome surprise. On March 26, a few weeks after I’d chatted with Lori French and visited Dick Ogg, the little dot next to “Dungeness crab”on the Fish and Wildlife website turned from red to green. Crab season was back on, albeit five months later than normal. On Twitter, food writer John Birdsall called it “basically San Francisco Christmas.”

The next day, I paid a visit to the docks near Pier 45 in San Francisco. Despite the Alcatraz Psych Ward sweatshirts and In-N-Out Burger, Fisherman’s Wharf still operates as an actual wharf for actual fishermen. You can find them, too, if you sneak out back, past the tiny wooden Catholic chapel that still holds a Latin Mass on Sundays, to the long pier that points toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Inside a prep room behind Scoma’s restaurant, a crew of white-clad cleaners sprayed down the rubber mats on the floors with big hoses. Across the water, a forklift moved stacks of crab pots a half dozen at a time to cranes attached to the dock, where they would be loaded onto waiting boats. Lines were untied. Equipment was loaded and unloaded. Decks were swabbed. Cigarettes extinguished. Nods were exchanged and final conversations in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese were held. By the time the city’s office workers had staggered to their desks, the boats were long gone.

The following morning, as the first loads of crab returned, I wandered inside the warehouse at Alber Seafoods, where workers were packaging the harvest and moving it onto waiting trucks. Two men unloaded live crabs into plastic bins filled with water. Last year, on the first day of the season, workers say they’d cleared an estimated 14,000 pounds. Today they’d pulled in 5,800. I asked one of the workers how the crabs looked: “Nice and full,” he said, but there just weren’t enough of them. “We missed it all.” At least, I suggested, there was pent-up demand. People must be dying to eat crabs, yeah? Maybe not. “Like I tell my wife, it’s like sex,” he said. “After a while, you’re just out of the mood.”

To test this thesis, I headed over to Nob Hill, where by 11:30 there was a line out the door of Swan Oyster Depot on Polk Street. In the window, fresh crabs sat on a bed of ice, their carapaces gleaming like gemstones in the sunlight. Waiting to get inside were representatives from every one of San Francisco’s jockeying demographics: a tourist; a college kid in a Cal football jersey; a pair of working-class dudes drinking beer from plastic cups; a couple of women wearing black leggings and sipping from water bottles, fresh from exercise class; a lady with dyed green hair wearing a “Humans for Bernie” T-shirt. Time for us to eat some Dungeness crab.

I paid $24 in cash for a half-cracked crab and an Anchor Steam. (The yellow viscera known as crab butter is safe to eat, too, but since domoic acid collects at higher concentrations there than in the meat, I avoided it. Also, I don’t really like it.) I piled the meat from a leg onto a thick slice of sourdough and splashed it with a goopy dollop of red cocktail sauce. So sweet, so cold, so delicious. The fisherman was obviously wrong. How could anyone not be in the mood for this?

In the dark before dawn on May 3, a little over a month into the abbreviated crab season, Dick Ogg guided the Karen Jeanne out of the Spud Point Marina. It was just after 5 a.m. on what would be their second-to-last crab run of the season, and ahead shone the lights of fishing boats that had left ahead of us. Onboard were Dick, the dogs, and his two deckhands. Hal, who works as a firefighter in San Jose, pulled his hoodie snugly against himself and napped inside the cabin. Joe, who works construction on the side, talked in nervous bursts of energy. As the sky began to lighten, Dick explained the day’s plan. They’d fish in the relatively shallow coastal waters of Bodega Bay, between their berth at the north end and Tomales Bay State Park to the south, where the federal government had recently forced the closure of the Drakes Bay Oyster Company farm. Filled with bait, their crab pots lay in rows by the dozen at the bottom of the water. When the boat passed by, Hal and Joe would raise them to the surface, hoping to find them filled with crabs. Normally, they would then add new bait and return the pots to the water, but today they’d stack the pots on deck to haul back with them.

It was a 15-mile run southeast to the first group of pots, the exact location of which I am bound not to reveal. The water was clear and calm. By 6:55, the sun had risen behind low clouds and we’d arrived. Joe elbowed Hal awake, and the two men put on rubber work clothes. “These days,” said Joe, “I run on 5-Hour Energy and attitude.” Dick climbed up to the top of the cabin, where another steering wheel allowed him to control the boat while keeping an eye on the buoys that marked where the pots sat in the water. I clambered up behind him.

The boat, rocking gently but persistently, pulled alongside a buoy that marked a pot’s location. “Coming up, coming up, coming up!” the crewmen called excitedly. Dick angled the approach so that the pot was close to starboard, where Hal waited with a hook affixed to a long pole. He attached a rope to an electric winch that pulled the pot up. Hal coiled the loose rope into an empty trash can, and Joe unclipped the buoy and cleaned it in a bucket full of bleach and water. When the trap emerged into the air, Joe and Hal took hold of it on either side and poured more than a dozen, maybe 20, crabs into a small holding tank. Joe hugged his arms around the sides of the pot and walked to the back of the deck, where he dropped it. They threw the leftover bait back into the water, which soon roiled with seagulls. When they had a moment, they used a metal tool to measure the length of each crab—61/4 inches was the magic number; any males smaller than that got thrown back, along with all the females. Joe and Hal tossed the keepers into a massive tank installed in the hull. The crabs’ claws twitched open and closed as they spun like Frisbees into the water.

The deckhands had about a minute before the boat, which never stopped moving forward, arrived at the next buoy, marking another pot. The day before, they’d pulled 160 80-pound pots out of the water, after which Hal had stacked them at Dick’s house past dark. The next day they would do it again, for the final time this season. Relatively speaking, these were slow, easy days.

By midafternoon, the crew had piled the back of the boat high with empty pots, and hundreds of crabs wriggled in the hold. The boat tipped noticeably toward its stern. Dick and the crew debated going after one more string of pots before heading home. They could do it either today or tomorrow, and as the boys began to call out, “One more! One more! One more!” Dick laid in the course.

They loaded until they had no more room, and then it was time to head home. At the Tides, they tied the boat up alongside a small crane, with which a worker pulled up the empty pots three at a time; another drove them away with a forklift. Once they had unloaded the pots, they pumped the water out of the hold and loaded crab after crab into crates. Beady eyes blinked and mouths gaped open and closed silently as the men grabbed them at the base of the back legs. Joe tried to convince the guys to buy his rare albino crab, which was actually an ordinary crab that he’d accidentally dropped into some bleach. No takers. He tossed it overboard.

The men had harvested just over 1,000 pounds. Two of the gorgeous little suckers came home with me in a box on the backseat of my Civic. For the 12-plus hours of work, Dick made a little more than $3,200. Joe and Hal each went home with $480. Not life-changing money, but a respectable haul—so much so that I asked Dick why they’d decided to call it a season. “It’s always good to stop,” he reasoned. “Nature’s telling me it’s time to move on.”

As summer began, life continued along the coast. Ogg motored the Karen Jeanne up to Washington, where he hoped the ship’s engine would be rebuilt in time for the late-summer salmon run. At the Marine Mammal Center, Frances Gulland braced for another year’s worth of dying sea lion pups. In the waters off Washington, scientists launched their own robotic “laboratory in a can,” similar to the one used in Monterey.

According to the preliminary figures from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in March, April, and May, fishermen had caught 5.7 million pounds of Dungeness crab, almost all of that total in April. That was less than a third of the yearly average over the last decade. In Monterey Bay, scientists kept a wary eye on domoic acid levels as the annual algae bloom returned. Around summer solstice, the answer began to emerge: It was good news. Tests indicated that levels had crept up to only three parts per million in mussels—far below the level of concern. Although a larger bloom could still occur, the likelihood increased that the state’s crab fishermen would catch a break this November.

That victory, however, may not last. This year was a scary wakeup call for the crab fishers, and the scariest thing was that there was nothing they could do, save for changing professions, to mitigate the next disaster. Another strong algae bloom, the crabbers fear, could bring the industry to its knees. Two lost seasons in a row could all but destroy it.

Could the Dungeness crab fishery disappear entirely? Probably not. But then again, who really knows? These are dark and uncertain times. Someday, not so long from now, you might miss eating Dungeness crab. You’ll miss sitting around the kitchen table with your family, crabs splayed out on white butcher paper, everybody splitting legs open with a nutcracker. You’ll miss the ritual, how it made you feel connected to the place where you live and to the people who hauled your feast up from the seafloor. Maybe you’ll bore the grandkids one day, years from now, with stories about how you used to pile the empty shells in bowls until the bowls tipped over.

Originally published: