ON THE PACIFIC OCEAN — Dungeness crab fishermen for the first time this season hauled in pot after pot of writhing crustaceans here in a rush to fill up boats and get the valuable catch to shore before the market floods and prices fall.
On Wednesday, the first day of the commercial crab harvest, Brookings, Ore.-based captain Joe Speir motored his 50-foot boat, the Equinox, through unusually calm, deep blue seas. A line of buoys marked where his crab pots lay.
With an electric winch humming, Speir's deckhands pulled up hundreds of Dungeness crab from metal traps tethered about 60 feet below. They toiled at lightning speed, taking advantage of the windless, sun-drenched day. The crew threw female and immature crabs over the railing and dumped keepers into the boat's hold before dropping the pots back into the water for another go.
Speir expected to have a full load — an astonishing 30 tons — of crab by midnight on the first day before heading back to the docks to collect his $1.75 per pound. For the Equinox, it was shaping up to be a $100,000 first day in what is expected to be a record-setting crab season here.
"We go around the clock," Speir said from his vessel's deck, bobbing atop slow-rolling swells. "This is going to be a good year, and the next couple of years should be good around here, too."
For fishermen based in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay — ports nearest to this valuable crab fishery — the larger boats from Oregon and Washington that can carry hundreds of crab pots mean less money in their wallets.
This has sowed seeds of resentment, and led to two bills being introduced in the California legislature in recent years, both ultimately vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that would have capped the number of pots a boat could sink.
These caps, some fishermen argue, would give more of the crab share to local, small-scale and medium-scale fishermen.
The Dungeness crab fishery off the central California coast is lucrative. In 2006, the last good year for Dungeness, crabbers earned nearly $4.4 million, according the state Department of Fish and Game. Of that, about $3.2 million was caught off the San Francisco area.
"More recently we've seen some of these larger northern boats coming in with a tremendous numbers of traps, it's almost an arms race out there," said Zeke Grader, director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents about 1,500 individual members.
"With this big influx of boats ... it means less crab to support the local fishing fleet," Grader said.
With other formerly lucrative regional fisheries like salmon canceled or curtailed in recent years, the competition to get into the Dungeness crabbing has increased.
To protect crab from being overfished, the state has for years restricted the number of commercial licenses to about 600 — but there are no restrictions on the number of traps each boat can deploy.
Oregon-based Speir acknowledged the tension from locals, but said he delivered his catch to a San Francisco-based buyer, so he was contributing to the local seafood economy.