Gov. Brown seeks disaster declaration for crab industry

As it remains uncertain whether this winter's Dungeness crab season will ever open for most of California, Gov. Jerry Brown today asked the federal government to declare a commercial fisheries disaster.

Brown sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker asking her to declare a disaster and a commercial fishery failure for the state's $90 million crab fishing industry, which has been stalled by toxic levels of domoic acid found in crabs off most of the California coast.

Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin caused by algae blooms that accumulates in shellfish and other invertebrates. In November it was discovered in levels that could cause a human health risk. Exposure to humans could cause nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, short-term memory loss, seizures and even death.

The crab season was delayed and has remained closed for most of the state, with only a few fisheries in southern California reopening.

The delay has already cost the California economy up to $48.3 million, according to Brown. Declaring a commercial failure and a disaster for the state's crab fishing industry would make the fishing community eligible for federal economic assistance.

"Crabs are a vital component of California's natural resources and provide significant aesthetic, recreational, commercial, cultural and economic benefits to our state," Brown wrote in his letter. "Economic assistance will be critical for the well-being of our fishing industry and our state."

Meanwhile, some Bay Area leaders are also finding ways to help fisheries affected by the closure.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said today he is making business assistance available through the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the Port of San Francisco was taking on its own relief plan for the crab industry that would waive fees and rent for three months during the upcoming salmon season.

"San Francisco's Dungeness crab is known around the world, and the delay of crab season has taken a substantial toll on the livelihood of the men and women in the local commercial crab industry," Lee said in a statement. "This plan will mitigate the economic impact to the small businesses who depend on the crab industry for income and will help families during this time of crisis."

Some of San Francisco's fisheries have been particularly hard hit as in addition to this year's crab season closure, salmon fishing has been impacted by four years of drought, according to Lee's office.

Niko von Broembsen is a crab fisherman from Half Moon Bay. He was forced to take an office job at a seafood wholesaler in San Francisco to make ends meet.

"It's been kind of difficult,” he admits. "I, uh, had to move out of my rental and onto my boat because I didn't have money to pay rent." Unable to afford auto insurance, von Broembsen had to sell his car.

"I just got my renewal fees for the Department of Fish and Game," he frets. "And they want $2,000 for my various tags and licenses to go fishing again."

But the reality is von Broembsen doesn't know when he'll hit the waters again. The only thing fishermen are pulling out of the ocean these days he says, is black cod.

"The crab industry has gone through this unprecedented natural disaster,” said Peter Dailey with the Port of San Francisco. 

The relief plan would suspend port rental charges starting now through April it would cost the Port $100,000. It would also relieve berthing fees which total about $28,000.

von Broembsen is thankful. "That would be a great help,” he admitted. "Berthing fees any small amount of relief that we can get we'd be very grateful."