Dungeness crab season winding down for most, despite late start
Their work kicked off in mid-December, a whole month late, in foul weather that challenged fishing crews most of the way through, but much of California’s commercial crabbing fleet appears ready to call it quits on the 2019-20 Dungeness crab season, anyway.
There were simply fewer crabs than expected this winter waiting to be lured into traps baited by crabbers eager to get a piece of the action that fetched fishermen more than $67 million during 2017-18, the last full season in California.
There also was focused fishing pressure on Bodega Bay and the rest of the Central Coast region, in part because of delayed seasons north of Sonoma County, where the crabs required extra time to beef up this year.
The northern closures increased the number of large boats from Crescent City, Oregon and elsewhere who descended on Bodega Bay and other southern ports early in the season.
“There was a feeling from everyone, I mean all of us - because the season ended early last year, and we had seen a lot of short crabs at that time - that there was going to be a lot of production this time,” said Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association. “There had been evidence that that was probably going to be the case and, as it turned out, there was a few crabs in a very specific area, and because of the pressure that was there, those crabs were harvested quickly, and it impacted our opportunity to stretch out the season.”
Bigger boats are generally permitted for high numbers of crab pots and also can handle rougher seas, so they can stay out at on the ocean for longer periods and scoop up generous volumes of the high-value crustaceans more quickly than smaller boats would.
“Those boats, they fish day and night. They won’t quit,” said Rich Franceschi, dock manager at Pacific Seafood. “It just doesn’t take long anymore to catch ’em, to get the bulk of them.”
Some crabbers will continue fishing for the time being, through April 1 or perhaps longer, depending on state regulators.
New, evolving regulations designed to limit exposure of migrating whales and other marine animals to crab gear and other fishing lines, have lent increased uncertainty to crab season start and stop times - including default end dates of April 1. The season used to run through June 30.
Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham delayed the usual Nov. 15 opener for the district south of Mendocino County by a week this season, only to extend the closure for a full month after crabbers - fearful the continued presence of whales in the area put them at risk of entanglements and negative ramifications for the fishery - all but demanded it.
But even starting Dec. 15, the delayed Dec. 31 opener up north put enough pressure on Central Coast waters that the “cream of the crop has been creamed” veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Tony Anello said. “It’s simple mathematics.”
Preliminary figures from California Fish and Wildlife put this season’s catch at nearly 9.7 million pounds for the first six weeks. That’s about half of the 20.1 million pounds harvested in all of the 2017-18 season.
More than half was pulled up in December, during the first couple weeks of the season, which is usually the busiest, most lucrative time for the commercial fleet.
But the volume of the catch dropped precipitously in recent weeks south of Mendocino County, while it improved north of the county line, where the season opened more recently.
“It fell off dramatically,” said Ogg, who brought his crab pots in for the season on Tuesday, “but you gotta remember both years were down years. We’re on the bottom end of the cycle. Hopefully, there’s a top again.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.