Stumbling Through Disaster

Lori French

How I Spent my Time During California’s 2015-16 Dungeness Crab Fishery Closure

There’s a children’s book called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day that I used to read to my kids. We just had about 155 such days here in California.

November

Right before the commercial Dungeness crab season was about to begin on November 15, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) shut down the season for elevated levels of domoic acid (DA). DA is a naturally occurring substance that comes from pseudo-nitszchia, a diatom present in some of the harmful algal blooms we see on the West Coast.

Like many others, I figured, “Oh hell, we’ll be open by December.”

And then December rolled around.

December

It was a novelty for me that the Old Man of the Sea (aka my husband) was home for my birthday this year when he’s usually deep in the crab grounds. This year, he gave me a gift that didn’t require cooking. It was wrapped in real birthday wrapping paper – not Christmas or a brown paper bag – with a bow. I didn’t believe him. The Tall Ones (aka my boys) confirmed that, yes, Dad had wrapped it by himself and that they had watched because they’d never seen this happen before. (Side note: I’ll be hiring him out if he ever retires from fishing.)

By mid-December things were looking bleak. Crab crews on Facebook were posting ads looking for work. Guys were doing odd jobs to get by, because crab season was going to open, right?

A week before Christmas, I got the crazy idea to help out a bit and bounced my idea off of the other Central Coast Women for Fisheries. We started the Crabbers’ Emergency Relief Fund on gofundme.com to get some grocery money to our crews. I started brooding extra chicks for my egg business as my egg business was now our grocery money, and “The chickens will provide” became a household battle cry.

The main topic – the only topic – of conversation between crabbers was crab testing results: “Did you see the new numbers?” or “Do you know if they’re testing the crab?” The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) was supposed to test the crab from each harbor once a week. A fisherman from each harbor brought in six crabs, which were transported to the ONLY lab in the state.

That worked out about as well as me fitting into a pair of size 6 jeans. I mean, it was December, there were storms when crab couldn’t get to the lab, and then the lab got backed up when they did get the crab. Tests were supposed to be published but apparently the government goes home at 5 o’clock and they celebrate little things like holidays.

January

What comes after a bleak December? January.

My email box was filling up daily with requests for grocery cards from the Crabber Relief Fund. Then I started getting Facebook messages for help, and my cellphone number got out into the world. Guys were calling for help. Wives and girlfriends were asking for their guys, just because. I was looking into Food Banks for commercial fishermen up and down the coast. I was looking into Food Stamp requirements and Salvation Army information. Families were getting turned down for help because they’d made too much money last year.

The Old Man of the Sea started reading the emails to make sure I got all the names down on the list. He kept his ear to the ground for those who might need help. Captains were calling to make sure their crews were on the list. It was beyond heartbreaking. I just can’t describe it.

We had a pretty decent savings account, or so I thought. The Old Man of the Sea started calling me his “Executive Wife” and making a traveling breakfast for me when I headed out the door to work. (Yes, I do have a real, almost full-time job in health insurance.) Since I’m the political voice of the family, I was going to meetings, listening to meetings, and giving interviews. I’m pretty sure someone wrote my name on a bathroom wall, “If you want an interview call…”

In other harbors people were kicking it into high gear with fundraisers. There were campaigns to get the harbors to give slip rent relief. Bodega Bay-Spud Point led the charge and opened a food bank for crabbers in the laundry room. In Crescent City, extreme couponers opened a food bank at a church for just crabbers. In Fort Bragg, a crabber took it upon himself to ask local business for donations and gift cards to the grocery stores while in ill health himself.

These people CARED! Phone calls were flying back and forth between harbors on the politics and the situation of who needed what.

February

We moved into February. Blacker than black. The Crabber’s Relief Fund had a waiting list. Crabbers were losing their homes, their boats were on the line, crews were leaving to find land, jobs, trucks were being repossessed. A bunch of us went to Sacramento and testified.

I ended my political career before I even had one by telling the Senators, “It’s bullshit when the very people who provide food are asking for food.” It was and still is.

In our house, my living room had been rearranged, paintings had been rehung (twice), my pantry had been cleaned and organized, along with my spice cabinet by the oldest Tall One. The Old Man of the Sea had taken over my chicken business completely. Things were getting done around the ranch that had needed to be done for years.

March

In March the mood was just ugly. Fishermen were angry. The test numbers were down then up and then down and up. Hopes were raised and then dashed again and again. The meetings were brutal, harbor against harbor, when the state reopened an area for sport crabbing.

For the commercials, areas that had tested clean were still closed waiting for entire commercial management districts to clean up. This had to do with California’s dual management system, under which the commercials and sports are regulated by two different state agencies.

Crabbers were asked whether we should open as smaller chunks of the coast came clean, or if we wanted to stick to the traditional lines.” Anger, frustration, friends turning on friends. All because of a number. Lines were being drawn.

We ultimately decided to stick with the traditional lines, fearing that new district sub-areas might set a precedent we didn’t want during a normal year. Plus, crabs don’t really respect human-drawn, invisible lines on the ocean surface. No sense in doing something stupid just because we were desperate.

Late in March we got the “All Clear” for half of the California coast, the region we call District 10. Our buyers were caught off guard and the weather had turned to crap. But we were finally opening in the lower part of the state.

I was at work when I got word. I broke down and cried, and I’m not a crier. Just sheer relief, until I realized that this was not for all of us. Once the crab was quality tested, the price was set and guys took off. Meanwhile, a media event/crab feed was planned in San Francisco to assure our consumers that the crab was indeed safe, healthy and delicious.

And then we all started watching the DA sampling numbers for northern California. Those guys could just not catch a freakin’ break until May. Crabbing will finally resume statewide on May 26, well after I write this.

Lessons Learned

This entire Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad crab season opened my eyes to a few things. (Crab Wife on Fish Box here.)

  1. Government decision-makers would be well-served to spend some time with the people affected by their decisions. It takes time and effort to gain empathy for a situation, but people affected by crises deserve that empathy.
  2. California needs a Crab Council to promote our crab. Ad hoc attempts to market our way out of the crisis of consumer confidence just didn’t cut it. We need a standing army to promote the best crab on the coast.
  3. We need a real testing protocol. Granted, the entire state was playing this one by ear – we’ve never had a fishery closure over DA before. But the protocol was more like guidance. We need rules about when and how testing occurs to give the fleet and consumers confidence and reliability in the product.
  4. We need a complete redux of the science addressing DA toxicity in humans. It turns out that rock crab in Southern California is often fished with a DA advisory. That fishery had never closed until CDPH got spooked over Dungeness. No one’s been sick from DA since the fishery reopened. Are the numbers used to shut down the fishery accurate? After this disaster, we deserve to know.

Crab Wife stepping off the fish box now. I never ever want to live through a season like this again.

About Lori French

Lori French is the president of Central Coast Women for Fisheries, the executive wife/mother of a commercial fishing family, and the queen-protector of California’s crab fleet. She’s also on the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations board of directors, representing Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization.

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