BODEGA BAY — Thousands of crab traps, stacked six feet or higher, line the sides of Westshore Road surrounding the Spud Point Marina, a clear indication this year’s commercial Dungeness crab season along the North Coast is off to another rocky start.
“Look at what’s happening at Spud Point — there’s probably 10,000 pots sitting out there. Those are guys who aren’t going out,” said Charlie Beck, a Bodega Bay fisherman who has been crabbing in the waters off the Sonoma Coast nearly 40 years. “Our small fishing fleet is getting destroyed. Last year was the worst season that we’ve ever seen, and this year it’s looking pretty bleak, especially for the smaller boats.”
State health officials last week recommended an indefinite delay for Dungeness along a 180-mile stretch of coastal waters along Northern California, from Point Reyes in Marin County to Humboldt Bay in Mendocino County, dealing another blow to the North Coast’s lucrative wintertime crabbing season following last year’s 4½-month delay.
State officials with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which regulates California’s crab fishery, ordered the delay after testing conducted in November revealed several crabs pulled from the coastal waters outside Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg had elevated levels of domoic acid, a naturally occurring neurotoxin that can be harmful if ingested. It is produced by a toxic red algae bloom infilitrating the food web and damaging marine life.
“It’ll remain closed as long as there are elevated levels of domoic acid,” said Jordan Traverso, a Department of Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman. “The bottom line right now is the commercial season will open Dec. 1 from the Humboldt (Bay) jetty north, but remain closed from that point all the way down to Point Reyes, until it’s safe.”
The season, which was slated to open Nov. 15, extends to June 30.
Veteran fishermen expressed frustration over state health officials’ decision to delay the Dungeness season again during the critical holiday period. Commercial crabbers earn a large chunk of their annual income from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, when the crustaceans are most abundant and demand is at its peak.
Meanwhile, the season has been open to sport fishing for weeks. State officials have advised recreational fishermen to refrain from eating the crabs’ guts, or viscera, which contains the most concentrated levels of domoic acid.
Some crabbers questioned whether the federally accepted level of domoic acid — 30 parts per million in the organs — actually poses a threat to public health. Others said the decision to allow crabbing in parts of the fishery that stretches from the San Mateo County line up to the Mendocino County line, while prohibiting fishing in the highly productive coastal waters off the Sonoma Coast, creates an inequitable marketplace that disproportionately favors large-scale fishermen.
Dan Kammerer, 74, and other seasoned fishermen, said smaller boats aren’t as capable as larger commercial operations to handle rough seas during storms, and larger boats can hold more gear, enabling them to haul a greater number of traps and lay them down in multiple locations. And, the 2½-hour, 20-mile trip from Bodega Bay to Point Reyes racks up fuel costs.
“This isn’t really a problem for the bigger boats, so they have the advantage,” said Kammerer, a small-scale crabber who also catches the crabs for state health officials to conduct domoic acid testing. “It’s a bad season for the small boat operator again. Unfortunately, I think this is going to be the new normal.”