Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 6:29 pm | Partly Cloudy 65º




Santa Barbara Commercial Fishermen, Restaurants Cope Without Crab Season

California has closed commercial rock and Dungeness crab fisheries because of high toxin levels found in seafood

Longtime local commercial crab fisherman Steve Escobar holds up a crab caught off the coast of Santa Barbara, back before the rock crab fishery was closed due to presence of a toxin.
Longtime local commercial crab fisherman Steve Escobar holds up a crab caught off the coast of Santa Barbara, back before the rock crab fishery was closed due to presence of a toxin. (Steve Escobar photo)

Steve Escobar has been dipping into his savings this month, trapping some lobster here and there or fishing for other sea fare, but he mostly waits for rock crab season to reopen.

Typically open year round, that commercial fishery has been closed off the Santa Barbara shore since Nov. 5, a rare occurrence prompted by the high domoic-acid levels found in some rock and Dungeness crab north of the Ventura and Santa Barbara County line up through Oregon.

So Escobar waits, along with more than a dozen full-time rock crab commercial fishermen who operate out of Santa Barbara Harbor.

“You don’t want to make anybody sick, so you kind of have to respect it,” said Escobar, who’s been setting up crab traps locally since 1991. “We’ve had warnings in the past, but never a closure.”

For the first time since anyone can remember — including Santa Barbara Harbor Operations Manager Mick Kronman — the California Department of Fish & Wildlife closed the rock crab fishery, also delaying the commercial Dungeness crab season, which was scheduled to open Nov. 15.

The agency had no idea this week when closures would be lifted, taking cues from the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment and the California Department of Public Health, which earlier this month issued health advisories warning consumers against eating crabs caught in those areas.

“There’s hope but no official word,” Kronman said. “There’s hope the fishery could be open as early as December.”

Sample testing will continue until state health officials see a consistent decline in levels of neurotoxin domoic acid, a natural occurrence related to an algal “bloom” of a plant called pseudo-nitzschia.

According to state health officials, symptoms of domoic acid poisoning can occur within 30 minutes to 24 hours after eating toxic seafood. They range from vomiting, diarrhea and headaches to trouble breathing, heart problems, coma or death.

That’s bad news for fishermen, restaurants and others who take part in the million-dollar industry, the harbor operations manager said.

“It’s a trickle down impact starting with the fishermen,” Kronman told Noozhawk. “That’s a $2 million a year industry. Typically, that’s another 28 percent expanded economic impact. It impacts people all the way down to the consumers who enjoy eating these animals.”

Some fishermen have gone crab trapping down past Ventura, he said, but many aren’t going out, which affects fuel providers, retailers, truckers and more.

Kronman said algal blooms have thrived in warmer water, possibly related to El Nino. State officials acknowledge waters have been warmer and that El Nino typically brings those temperatures, but they stop short of officially connecting the dots.

Just as fishermen have adapted, so have restaurants selling seafood.

“Being in the live seafood business, we’re kind of used to everything being very hectic,” said Adam White, who with his dad, Tom, owns the Santa Barbara’s Boathouse, FisHouse and Shellfish Company restaurants.

“There’s been a big impact, most especially on the fishermen who fish the now closed areas. I feel more for the fishermen.”

In the absence of local catch — typically hauled from off the Channel Islands — White said his eateries are paying more to get rock crab from Ventura on south, where it’s safe for consumers.

Prices haven’t increased on the menu, however, he said, acknowledging that while some customers come in aware of the advisory with questions, most have no idea.

Escobar considered boating down to Ventura for crab, but he’s content delaying for now because he’s hopeful the season will reopen in a couple weeks.

Besides, Escobar has found a couple silver linings.

He’d rather deal with a lull now than during the busier summer crab season, and he might be able to go home for Thanksgiving for the first time in years.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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