Fishermen call for change due to frenzied crab season
SAN FRANCISCO – The Dungeness crab season has started just in time to put the tasty crustaceans on Thanksgiving dinner tables across Northern California.
But crab lovers better hurry if they want to eat fresh Dungeness from the San Francisco fishery, which stretches from Santa Cruz to Bodega Bay.
The season-opening fishing frenzy for the much-desired delicacy causes a glut of fresh crabs during the first few weeks – depressing prices for fishermen, creating dangerous conditions on the open seas and leading to higher consumer prices later in the season when fresh crabs are in short supply.
With the eight-month Dungeness season only a week old, some fishermen say it’s time to change the way the crab fishery near San Francisco Bay is managed.
“We need to slow this fishery down,” said Wayne Sohrakoff, 54.
The Eureka-based fisherman was delivering his catch from the Point Reyes area last week to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. He said he used to receive as much as $2.50 per pound but now gets just $1.75 a pound.
“You got a whole bunch of crabs delivered at one time, but you can’t move them because they’re not selling,” he said.
Since the fishery opened on Monday, fishermen – called “crabbers” – have scrambled to fill their boats in an intensifying competition that is fueled by growing numbers of boats and crab traps, also known as pots. The fishermen reported abundant harvests during the first few days, but their hauls have dropped off dramatically since.
Under the current system, which doesn’t limit the number of traps on each boat, most legal-sized crabs are caught within the initial weeks of the season.
In the resulting glut, fishermen receive lower prices for their catch and the excess must be processed and frozen for sale later.
Consumers are rewarded with good prices during the season’s peak but end up paying more later, when fresh crabs must be shipped from Oregon, Washington and Alaska.
The season’s intensity could be seen on the docks of Pier 45 at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf last week, where sunburned fishermen delivered the day’s harvest to seafood processors, unloading thousands of squirming Dungeness into yellow plastic bins.
Not far away, wharf vendors drop 2-pound live crabs into pots of boiling water, attracting camera-toting tourists eager to sample the local catch.
In the past, most vessels in the Central California fishery were small, local boats with 200 to 300 traps, and the season lasted through the spring.
But in recent years, local crabbers have been joined by fishermen from California’s far northern coast who come to fish for two weeks before the Dec. 1 opening of the Northern California fishery.
The locals complain that the northerners arrive with bigger boats, some of which carry more than 1,000 traps.
“There are places there are so many crab buoys it’s hard to drive a boat through,” said Chuck Wise, a Bodega Bay fisherman who serves as president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.
The steady decline of the Pacific Coast’s groundfish population, which includes such fish as snapper, sole and rock bass, prompted many North Coast fishermen to turn to California’s $35 million crab industry.
Last year, the federal government bought out half the West Coast trolling fleet to help rejuvenate the depleted groundfish population. In turn, many of those fisherman used the money to buy crab boats, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the fishermen’s association.
“We’ve taken a problem in one fishery and transferred it to another,” Grader said. “It’s become the worst of the worst derby fisheries. … It means all the crabs are being harvested all at once.”
Despite the intense competition, scientists say the Central California crab fishery remains healthy.
Last year, more than 5 million pounds of crab were landed, the largest amount in more than 40 years, said Tom Moore, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.
“Right now, it doesn’t seem that this level of fishing is affecting next year’s catch,” Moore said.
But Moore and other say the season’s mad-dash kickoff creates dangerous conditions for crabbers. When the season opens, some 300 boats rush out at once and start dropping their traps, often working for days with little time to sleep.
“You got to make hay while the sun shines,” said fisherman Larry Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. “You got to get the crab before they’re gone. Now there’s so much pressure, so you got to keep pulling.”
Fortunately, the seas have been calm, and no injuries or accidents have been reported this month. In the past, fishermen have been hurt or killed when seas were rough.
Fishermen who want to slow down the crab season sponsored legislation this year that would limit each boat to 250 traps. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed the bill in September, saying the state Fish and Game Commission should decide how to regulate the fishery.
The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, said his office is considering reintroducing the bill next year.
But such a limit is unreasonable, said Bob Repair, a Eureka fisherman who was unloading his 60-foot boat, named “Gladnik,” at Pier 45.
“I can’t make a living with 250 pots, not with this boat,” said Repair, 42, whose boat carries 475 pots. “If they don’t want everyone coming here, they should open at the same time as everyone else.”