San Franciso Bay Area Dungeness crabber Captain John Mellor
“We’re like the Giants. We’re your hometown team,” said Captain John Mellor last week as he described the San Francisco Bay Dungeness crab fishing fleet. Capt. Mellor’s pride in his work as a crabber is paired with a love for what he does. But, his feelings are mixed with fear for the future. A West-Coast wide toxic algae bloom shut down the fishery last year, leaving him out of work for five months. Fishermen and researchers are also worried that ocean acidification could represent a looming threat to the fishery that could cause future fishing disruptions.
2016 hasn’t been a good year for the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery. The fishing season that typically spans the winter months – worth $212 million in 2014 – got significantly delayed this year when Dungeness crabs tested high for domoic acid, which sickens humans, and managers shut down the fishery. The crabs had fed heartily on a giant toxic bloom of Pseudonitschia algae, which produce domoic acid, and which were thriving in an unusually warm body of water stalled offshore, affectionately called “the blob.” The bloom also shut down other West Coast shellfish fisheries, too. The lost harvests equal lost income for West Coast communities. San Francisco Bay Area crabber John Mellor says, “If crabs were to disappear from the picture, I think it would be the end of my fishing career at this point.”
I have another fin-tastic update for you, from the West Coast!
If you recall, about five weeks ago I wrote in gratitude over the outpouring of support from Ocean Conservancy activists, who together with other conservation supporters sent nearly 100,000 letters to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) asking them to finalize protection for West Coast forage fish.
We said we’d get back to you on the final outcome and I’m happy to tell you about this victory! As of today, the final rule is complete and these fish will now be protected, and their immense importance to a range of predators from rockfish to whales to seabirds sustained.
Ten years ago, I was finishing graduate school. I was becoming an expert on how carbon dioxide is stored in the world’s oceans, but – and this seems weird to me now – I hadn’t heard about ocean acidification. Hardly anyone had. Only a handful of scientists had started to realize that as the ocean sops up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ocean chemistry changes in ways that can hurt fish, shellfish, and corals.
Just five years later, concern about ocean acidification had grown dramatically, and thousands of people were involved. West Coast shellfish growers were trying to save their hatcheries from the effects of ocean acidification, while scientists were scrambling to offer information and solutions. Ocean Conservancy began working on this issue in 2012, helping bring affected business people, policy makers, and scientists together during the initial search for solutions in Washington State, whose shellfish hatcheries experienced dramatic die-offs of their oyster larvae.
Late last month, ocean advocates and supporters took action to help protect the base of the Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem by supporting a ban on commercial fishing on unmanaged forage fish in federal waters. And, I was so excited to see that a tidal wave of Ocean Conservancy’s supporters took action, sending more than 17,000 letters to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) asking for final approval of this important measure!
Since this campaign is joined by a number of ocean conservation groups around the country, NMFS has received nearly 100,000 total public comments on the issue. WOW—that’s a big amount of support for such little (but important fish). So, thanks to YOU!
I bet you’re wondering about the outcome—did all of these messages have a BIG impact? Am I writing to tell you about a victory? Well, not quite yet! We won’t know the final outcome until perhaps springtime whether this measure will become law. Stay tuned—I promise to report back, when we have more information.
Since June 2013, millions of sea stars along the West Coast have disintegrated and died. Scientists have relentlessly tried to identify the cause of the “sea star wasting syndrome.” (See map of locations with outbreak.)
Typically, the first signs of an afflicted sea star are white lesions appearing on its body. Shortly thereafter, sea stars lose their limbs and their internal organs disintegrate. Although sea stars have the ability to regenerate limbs, the disease often progresses too quickly for them to recover. The exact cause of this disease is unknown. Scientists believe that sea star wasting syndrome may be due to a viral or bacterial infection, and could be exacerbated by increased water temperature. Populations of the ochre and sunflower sea stars, two common West Coast species, have been hit especially hard. Similar die-offs have occurred in the past, but never at the magnitude we see today, and over such a wide geographic area.
After months of travel across the Pacific, journalists Craig Welch and Steve Ringman unveiled the thorough and striking series of videos, photographs and interviews that underline just what ocean acidification will mean for people. Welch and Ringman capture a changing ocean, focusing on how increasing acidification will impact communities along the Pacific Rim including American crab and shellfish industries.
The iconic oyster industries on both the East and West coasts have been coping with the effects of ocean acidification for almost a decade now—and research is showing that crabs and other shell-forming species may be seeing direct impacts soon.
The species in the crosshairs are not only culturally relevant, but also economically valuable—supporting jobs and feeding millions. This is serious business for the United States and other nations that depend on a healthy ocean.