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California Dungeness crab fleet nets $68 million haul, but small boats continue to struggle

California’s valuable Dungeness crab fishery appears to have rebounded after a disastrous 2015-16 season that threatened to knock even longtime fishermen so far back on their heels some feared they might not recover.

Preliminary figures from the 2016-17 season show statewide commercial landings at more than $68.2 million, above the most recent 10-year average, and bested only twice in that period, including the peak $95.5 million haul in 2011-12.

For the season that closed June 30, the California fleet brought in 21.8 million pounds of Dungeness, a nearly 24 percent increase over the latest 10-year average, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The tally is preliminary because it is incomplete for May and June, according to Christy Juhasz, an environmental scientist for the wildlife agency.

For fishermen, the strong showing was welcome indeed. They were coming off a severely curtailed commercial crab season a year earlier, and successive salmon seasons with dreadful results.

“It was good,” said Sebastopol veteran Stan Davis, 67, who fishes with his two sons from the Nightwind, one of the larger boats in the Bodega Bay commercial fleet. “It was OK, and good both off of San Francisco and off of Crescent City.”

But the relative bounty of the season, many said, obscures continued hardship for small, family operations disadvantaged by management shifts in the commercial crabbing season.

For those eking out livings on a resource that is cyclical at the best of times, last fall’s staged opening of the Sonoma Coast district meant large boats, many from outside the area, could move from one opener to another, scooping up tons of crab while smaller boats struggled just to get their gear down.

“There’s winner and losers, both, here in the bay,” Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg said.

The California Dungeness crab fishery, the state’s second-most valuable, had just enjoyed some of its very best years when significant trouble arrived two years ago.

Impressive harvests from 2002 onward pushed annual landings above 20 million pounds with some regularity and drove catch values above $60 million for the first time, finally peaking at $95.5 million in 2012.

But a large and persistent bloom of a harmful algae and a naturally occurring neurotoxin crashed the fishery in the fall of 2015. State health officials determined that Dungeness crab had accumulated enough of the toxin that the traditional Nov. 15 start of the commercial season was postponed.

But then days became weeks, and very quickly the lucrative winter holiday season had come and gone, eliminating a critical source of income for the struggling fleet. When all was said and done, the season was on hold for 4½ months off the Sonoma Coast, finally opening at the end of March 2016.

Remarkably, the statewide catch was more than 12 million pounds that season, worth $39.5 million direct to the fishermen.

But last fall, isolated samples of elevated domoic acid again brought delays. Rather than open all of the Central California district that includes the Sonoma Coast, Nov. 15, state fishery managers opened the waters south of Point Reyes in Marin County only. A little more than two weeks later, 50 miles of Sonoma Coast was opened as well, as far north as Salt Point. Three weeks later, the fishery opened to the county line.

But the results of those and continued serial openings onward up the coast meant that the biggest boats - those which can move their gear in one go and fill a large hold with crabs before having to return to shore - could converge on each small area that opened, whatever the weather or water conditions.

The staggered openings meant big boats cleaned up and the small boats were left behind.

“Good numbers mask the fact that many fishermen had an abysmal season,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “There were opportunities for fishermen who are more mobile to access a number of different openers and have a hell of a season, where there were small-boat fishermen that were really limited in their ability to access the resource and have a good season. So it’s really a mixed bag.”

Foul weather was another problem, according to Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.

“A lot of the openers happened to be when weather was just too much for the smaller boats,” he said. “I don’t know how some of them are holding on, honestly.”

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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