Fisherman flounder as Sonoma Coast Dungeness crab season delayed

State officials prohibit fishing for the lucrative crabs in the highly productive coastal waters off the Sonoma Coast.|

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.”

So Kammerer made a calculated decision this year following the delay of the season’s opening along the Sonoma Coast.

He put down 115 crab pots at Point Reyes when the season opened Nov. 15, but is keeping his remaining 110 pots in Bodega Bay while awaiting the opening of the season off the Sonoma Coast.

“I couldn’t handle going back and forth in all this crummy weather to get my gear and haul it back and forth,” Kammerer said. “By the time it clears up and the season opens, the bigger boats will start bombing and the crabs will all be mopped up by the time I get there.

“It makes it really difficult for the little guy like me,” he said.

It’s a similar story for lifelong fisherman Tom Graham, 45, who said he earns roughly 80 percent of his crabbing income during the holidays.

“I’m hoping to break even this year, but it’s hard, especially when we’re spending all this extra fuel running back and forth,” Graham said.

One solution could be to open the entire fishery district from San Mateo in the south, to Mendocino County in the north, at the same time, helping to spread crabbing boats over a larger area, many fishermen said.

“One of the problems is that we have this entire fleet concentrated in one very small area,” said Dick Ogg, a crabber who assists Kammerer with testing activities. “Traditionally, the whole district opens at once so everyone has a fair and equal opportunity. So this is really hard when I watch my friends sit on the dock with no ability to go and fish and make a living.

“Splitting the district on these arbitrary lines is unacceptable,” he said. “We have districts for a reason, and crabs travel.”

Last year, state officials delayed the start of the season for the entire district when elevated domoic levels were detected, Traverso said. But state officials are shifting their approach this year.

“We closed the entire district at first last year, but as testing started coming back clean, we just started inching the closure back,” she said. “A lot of crabbers (last year) said, ‘Forget it, we want it open wherever it can be open.’”

Fishermen are waiting for test results, expected today, from 12 crabs pulled Friday from outside Bodega Bay and at shallower waters at the mouth of the Russian River. Similar samples collected multiple times earlier this month and in October showed crabs had elevated domoic acid levels.

Generally, state health officials require that two consecutive tests seven days apart come back with safe domoic levels before allowing commercial crab fishing, according to Patrick Kennelly, chief of the food safety section in the California Department of Public Health.

The uncertainty has led some fisherman to sit out the season so far.

Charlie Beck, who has been fishing his entire adult life, said he opted not to fish for crab last year. And this year, unlike Kammerer, Beck chose not to travel south to Point Reyes to put down crabbing pots.

“There’s still time this year,” Beck said, but, “I’m hopeful.”

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