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North Bay crabbers caught in price battle with wholesalers

Eggnog? Check. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Sure, if you’re into that. But don’t bet on landing any Dungeness crab this holiday season.

“Unless a miracle happens, which is highly unlikely, we won’t see crab for Christmas,” said Tony Anello, a veteran fisher who runs his boat, the Annabelle, out of Bodega Bay and offers up his tender product at Spud Point Crab Co.

After several years of varied setbacks and more than a month of delays to the 2020 Dungeness season, local crabbers now face a new hurdle as they haggle over price with large wholesalers. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife had reset the season’s start date to Wednesday, offering a glimmer of hope to those who have made fresh crab part of their annual holiday ritual. But few boats were heading out to set traps on Tuesday.

“We should be traveling right now,” Dick Ogg, another icon of the local Dungeness harvest, said Monday from behind a shopping cart at Costco. “I’m here grabbing stuff in case something happens this afternoon. We would normally anchor up, set up all the bait cups and be ready. Then (Tuesday), right at 6:01 (a.m.), we’d start setting gear.”

But Monday did not bring resolution. At 3 p.m. that day, representatives of the major fishing ports in Northern California spoke by phone with executives of Pacific Seafood, one of the West’s largest seafood wholesalers. A couple hours later, the company engaged in a separate call with a wider range of fishers stretching up the Oregon coast.

According to local fishers, wholesalers are asking skippers to cut their prices by 30% to 35%, leaving both sides approximately $1 a pound apart from an agreement that would start the crab season. Ogg said the wholesalers offered what would amount to the lowest price in six years.

“We can’t speak for other processors, and we are one of many buyers, but we’re actively working with the fisherman who fish for Pacific Seafood and the fishermen associations in the ports we do business,” Rick Harris, the company’s regional general manager, said in a statement. “This year is especially challenging for all parties involved given the significant drop in demand due to restaurant closures and event cancellations. The associations have communicated to us that they would like to postpone crab negotiations until after Christmas.”

Pacific Seafood is an influential player in this game, but by no means a monopoly, meaning other negotiations must follow. Boat captains insist Pacific Seafood’s offer is not sustainable. Mike Conroy, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, cited hidden costs like fuel, dockage, insurance, bait and boat maintenance in addition to the wages paid to crew members.

It’s yet another disheartening turn of events for crabbers, who have seen five of the past six Dungeness seasons delayed. That included the disastrous 2015-16 season, when elevated levels of a neurotoxin known as domoic acid, which concentrates in shellfish, lingered in California coastal waters for most of the winter. The problem pushed back the harvest to March and eliminated sales for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

More recently, the harvest has been curtailed by an alarming increase in the entanglement of migrating blue whales, humpback whales and leatherback turtles, a trend the state has attempted to mitigate by forming a task force along with fishers and environmentalists. The response, codified this year in the Risk Assessment Mitigation Program, has included delaying the Dungeness season until a high percentage of the ocean mammals have vacated California waters on their passage south to coastal Mexico.

That was the case this year. Fish and Wildlife chairman Charlton Bonham pushed the start date to Dec. 16, then to Dec. 23. His staff conducted a limited aerial survey in a portion of Fishing Zone 3, which stretches roughly from the Russian River to the Farallon Islands, on Dec. 5 and spotted seven humpback whales. Two days later, another mission observed five humpbacks in the same zone, plus a blue whale in Zone 2 (Russian River north to Cape Mendocino).

The department reported on Dec. 10 that four humpback whales had been entangled in fishing gear during 2020, including one confirmed to be ensnared in Dungeness lines somewhere between Bodega Bay and Point Reyes. In all, 16 whales were confirmed entangled along the West Coast this year, with an additional 10 unconfirmed.

Those numbers, though distressing, herald significant progress by the California Dungeness crab Fishing Gear Working Group, as the public-commercial coalition is called. In 2016, the state cited a record 71 reports of entanglement, with 48 cases confirmed. Twenty-two of those involved commercial crab traps.

Most crabbers are no more eager than state officials to begin the Dungeness season with migrating whales in the area, knowing an entanglement can result in orders to remove gear from the water, close specific zones or even shut down the entire fishery.

The North Coast fleet absorbed yet another blow in May, when a fire destroyed an 85,000-square-foot warehouse at the end of Pier 45 at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. Commercial fishers had leased much of the warehouse to store their gear. More than two dozen of those fishers sued the city last week, alleging gross negligence.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout also have impacted Sonoma County’s commercial fishing business. With restaurants unable to seat customers indoors for most of the past nine months — and now prohibited from any on-site dining — wholesalers are leery of taking on too much product.

“The pandemic has turned things upside down,” said Conroy, the federation president. “I heard one guy say it’s been a perfect confluence of crap. But he didn’t say ‘crap.’ These are just trying times for everybody. And I see both sides of the equation. The fleets are impacted, the markets are impacted, the consumer, everybody.”

Recreational crabbers have been pulling up pots since the first week in November, and some commercial captains may begin to do the same. But Ogg and Anello insist most of their colleagues, many of whom are from multigenerational fishing families, will act in unity.

“When the union has a picket line, you don’t cross the picket line,” Anello said. “I’ve been a supporter for higher prices for fishermen all my life.”

Anello started fishing commercially when he was 19, and has been doing it full time since 22. His brother and son also run boats out of Bodega Bay. He knows his fellow fishers are resilient, a required trait in a livelihood that is utterly reliant on whatever the sea delivers each day. Still, long-timers on the docks wonder how many more challenges they can navigate.

The crabbers lost Thanksgiving sales, and probably Christmas, too — what Conroy calls the “bread and butter” of crab season. The Dungeness season runs through June on the Sonoma Coast, and through July off Mendocino, but sales tend to fall off after early winter.

“Hopefully, the consumer will think of us when they can buy it,” Conroy said. “Once we’re out of the stay-at-home orders, do your Christmas dinner in January and include some crab.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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