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Bodega Bay boats set out for Dungeness crab along Sonoma Coast

The full force and focus of the West Coast crabbing fleet has turned on the waters off Sonoma County, where newly opened fishing grounds are expected to yield the next crop of holiday Dungeness crab.

Local fishing vessels left docks in droves before dawn Friday to start setting traps in a fishery whose bounty has made the sweet, succulent crustaceans an important cash crop around the North Coast.

Boats from around California, as well as Oregon and Washington, where the crab seasons have been delayed, have also joined in the latest opening, making for crowded, derby-style action that gives the advantage to the very biggest boats, crabbers say.

“I’ve never seen this many boats and this much gear north of Point Reyes,” Windsor crabber Ben Platt said by phone Friday off the Sonoma Coast as he deployed traps earlier set in Half Moon Bay, where he started the season.

In a normal year, the entirety of the Sonoma Coast would have opened Nov. 15, along with San Francisco, Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, all of which are in the same district, and other areas to the south. But because of lingering, if only slightly elevated levels of a naturally occurring biotoxin in some sample crabs, a line was drawn at Point Reyes and the Sonoma Coast remained off limits, until now.

The decision announced late Thursday by state health and wildlife agencies to permit commercial crabbing as far north as Salt Point beginning at midnight Friday suggests the current issues with domoic acid, the algae-related biotoxin, will be significantly less problematic than last year, when a huge and persistent harmful algae bloom-tainted crab, delaying the commercial Dungeness season an unprecedented 4½ months.

The area from Salt Point north along the Mendocino Coast to Humboldt Bay, remains closed to commercial fishing. The other recently opened commercial ground stretches from Humboldt Bay north to the state line.

With the most critical areas of the Sonoma Coast now open, crews aboard the smaller boats that call Bodega Bay home are getting their first crack at a season underway for 2½ weeks in more southerly waters.

Still, that did little to quell widespread frustration and concern over the impact of staggered fishery openings made necessary by irregular, preseason crab tests.

“Everybody’s moving their gear and fishing on top of each other, and that makes it miserable,” said veteran Bodega Bay crabber Stan Carpenter.

He and local crabbers are largely dissatisfied with what one called an about-face from last year, when the Department of Fish and Wildlife agreed to keep the whole Bay Area/North Bay fishery district closed until all of it could be opened, from Santa Cruz to the Mendocino County line.

That decision was made at the beginning of the crisis, however, before anyone imagined it would stretch on for months, devastating a more than $60 million-a-year fishery.

The state Fish and Wildlife Department now says it is committed to “opening as much area to commercial crab fishing as quickly as it can.”

Jordan Traverso, a state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman, said the agency is operating off “a lot of lessons learned last year”

“It’s in our best interests to keep the industry open and thriving,” she said. “We have to balance what health agencies tell us and the management of the fishery and the industry.”

But with delayed seasons in Mendocino County, Oregon and Washington, the piecemeal approach means the West Coast fishing effort is more concentrated than ever in the areas that are open, with the result that so many boats were in the area south of Point Reyes during November that those areas already are largely fished out, several crabbers said. Now, everyone is moving to the south and central Sonoma Coast to scoop up as much crab as possible in as little time as possible.

The situation is especially hard for those with smaller boats, who require several trips to deploy their full complement of crab pots. Many Bodega Bay skippers sat out the first part of the season because of fuel costs, distance limitations, challenging waters and weather, and waited in port until the Sonoma Coast opened. Now, they’re vying for the same crab as huge boats that can move easily northward as each area opens.

“It’s not a fair situation,” said veteran fisherman Tony Anello. “That’s all I can say.”

Platt, who has a medium-sized boat and high limit for crab pots, said he’ll probably do well this year, given how the season is playing out. But he said he’s bothered by the unintended consequences for smaller boats.

“At least 10 of the biggest slammers on this whole coast - the biggest boats on this whole coast - are moving north of Point Reyes today,” he said. “They’re getting the worst of it, Bodega Bay. There’s definitely going to be a lot of the smaller operators here that won’t have much of a season because it’s all going to get mopped up really quickly because of this scenario.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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