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No relief funds: What next?

By Donna Westfall – May 13, 2017 – California crab fishermen discuss consequences of poor seasons.

After four years of poor crab and salmon fishing, including one of the worst crab seasons in recent memory, local fisherman and Eureka resident Bob Borck decided in November that it was time to move on. After selling his fishing vessel — the Belle J II — of four years in January, Borck is now planning to start work as a contractor.

“I couldn’t be married to the boat,” he said Friday. “I’ve got enough family responsibilities on shore that it was too difficult to dedicate it to everything it needed to be.” Borck said he isn’t walking away from the industry completely if the right opportunity presents itself. But he said isn’t pining to return to it either, especially following a “pretty hard financial beating” after toxic algae blooms closed the 2015-16 Dungeness crab season for six months, placing many fishermen into debt.

Borck’s story is not unique. After Congress decided in late April to not include millions of dollars in funds in its government spending bill to relieve fisheries that experienced disastrous seasons, Borck said he is concerned how many more fishermen will leave the industry.

“You’ve got a lot of youth interest now in trying to keep the U.S. commercial fishing industry operational,” Borck said. “If bankruptcies and financial difficulties are really what a guy has to look forward to on the horizon, unless he gets lucky in the fishing business, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining a U.S. industry.”

After Congress decided not to include the relief funds, California Congressman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) and Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) introduced two bills on May 3 to provide $140 million in relief funds to California and Yurok Tribe fishermen.

The first is called The Crab Emergency Disaster Assistance Act of 2017:

  • Appropriates $117.39 million for disaster assistance to California Dungeness and rock crab fishermen and related businesses to be distributed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. It also
  • Investigates the root cause of the crab fishery disasters by designating $1 million for West Coast domoic acid sampling and monitoring, and $5 million for competitive grants distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for research on harmful algal bloom prediction and domoic acid toxicity.

The second bill is: The Yurok Tribe Klamath River Chinook Salmon Emergency Disaster Assistance Act of 2017:

  • Appropriates $22.45 million for disaster assistance to the Yurok Tribe for the 2016 Yurok Tribe Klamath River Chinook salmon fishery disaster.
  • Of the $22.45 million, $14.45 would provide assistance for the support of local Yurok fishing communities affected by the fisheries failure, and $6 million would be used for the restoration and monitoring of salmon habitat, to prevent a similar fishery failure occurring in the future.

Huffman told the Times-Standard on Friday that the bill will likely be voted on in the next appropriation cycle in September before the start of the new federal fiscal year in October. By that point, crab and salmon fishermen will have waited nearly two years for federal assistance.

Del Norte County Supervisor Bob Berkowitz said at the last board meeting that he wants the board to get behind these two bills with their support and urge other coastal fishermen and crabbers to write letters to the congressional leadership urging action on the bills.  “Our fishing industry needs relief. From the crabbers and tribal members to the river guides, they are all suffering and need federal help.” Said Berkowitz

As to whether the funds could be voted on earlier, Huffman said there is no assurances under the current Republican majority in Congress.

“I would say to everyone that is holding their breath hoping this thing happens, we’re trying multiple fronts. It’s not just this bill,” Huffman said before having to end the interview early for another call.

Grace said he is considering whether to take out a sizable loan to remain in the industry. “To have no help in sight, it’s really disheartening. To watch the wheels of government turn as slow as they do toward industries, to no fault of our own —” Grace said, cutting off his sentence. “… One of my closest friends in the industry had to put a second mortgage on his house. Another is out for good. There are just thousands of jobs just dropping like flies in a really good industry.”

Grace is one of many crab fishermen who have expressed frustration at how the state handled the toxic algae bloom.

The state implemented an immediate closure of the rock crab and Dungeness crab fisheries in November 2015 after crab tested high for domoic acid, which is a toxin produced by algae. While the state is working to improve domoic acid testing and notification to fishermen, Grace said he still does not feel heard by the state.

Meanwhile, the state is considering raising fishing landing fees by as much as 1,300 percent in order to make up a $20 million deficit in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s budget.

The landing fees have not been increased since 1993. While wholesale buyers normally pay the fee, fishermen and local state representatives say the proposed increase will likely impact the per pound price of catch, further impacting fishermen’s finances.

At nearly 40 years old, Grace said he is not sure what he would do if he were to retire from fishing.“I’m just trying to hang on by my fingernails,” he said.

Reprinted in part from the Times-standard By Will Houston

 

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