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North Coast commercial crab season is a go

BODEGA BAY - The commercial crabbing fleet heads to sea Friday amid mixed expectations for the coming season after several years of abundant catches, including a historic state and regional record in 2011-12.

The cyclical nature of the Dungeness crab fishery, coupled with the slim numbers of undersized crabs still in the water at the close of last season, had some thinking there could be a significant decline in stocks this year. Observations passed on from sport fishermen, whose season started two weeks ago, suggest there may be more crab than some have been anticipating, commercial crabbers said.

No one can know for sure until Saturday, the official start of the season and the first day state law permits commercial crews to start pulling pots set out earlier in the day in the yearly labor-intensive marathon.

But a great deal rides on those first few days on the water, when the crab population is at its peak.

The coastal waters off the Sonoma Coast were among the most productive last season. The region south of Mendocino County opens two weeks ahead of the rest of the North Coast, drawing vessels from Fort Bragg, Eureka, Crescent City, even Oregon, adding to the competition between local crews. And word on the docks is that more crews than usual are heading south from the Pacific Northwest because of last year’s strong season off the Sonoma Coast and poor prospects in Oregon this year, several fishermen said.

“It’s a big rush at the beginning,” skipper Paul Wedel said aboard the Debbie Marie at Spud Point Marina on Wednesday.

“Our season lasts until the end of June,” veteran fisherman Chris Lawson said, “but you get, on the average, half your season in the first two weeks.”

The impact of those early hauls means crabbers pretty much live on their boats this time of year, traveling between the ocean and port to empty and refill their holds as often as possible, slipping in a few hours of sleep when they can.

Deckhand James Waters, 26, said it’s OK, “as long as you stay busy.”

Longtime crabber Tony Anello, whose extended family takes part in the crab season and runs four commercial boats out of Bodega Bay, said sleep “is a luxury” during the season, especially at the beginning, when so much of one’s annual income is at stake.

But “we look forward to it,” Anello said, “because it’s when we make our money. Salmon season was a disaster for us this year.”

A flurry of activity dockside leads up to the season opener, with crews tending to engines and boat maintenance, inspecting the cage-like traps made of stainless steel wire, coiling colored ropes and pairing two-toned numbered buoys with crab pots stacked 10 and 12 feet high by the thousands around the harbor.?Price negotiations with wholesalers went all the way into Thursday afternoon before the parties settled on a price that would ensure the season started on time.

Most, if not all, fishing crews would have stayed tied up at dock until they could get a price they believed made it worthwhile for them to go out, local fishermen said.

With the matter settled, most skippers planned to leave dock overnight Thursday and early Friday to ensure they were positioned in time to begin soaking their pots at 6 a.m., 18 hours ahead of the season launch and the first permitted opportunity to get the traps in the ocean.

Lawson, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay, said crabbers opened with an offer of $4 a pound weeks ago, before the recreational crab season started Nov. 1 and returning boats brightened expectations for the commercial harvest. When buyers countered with $3 - the same opening price as last year - skippers came back with $3.50. But the fleet finally settled at $3, despite their willingness to hold out for something higher, under pressure from boats in San Francisco and Half Moon Bay, who were willing to accept $3, Lawson said.

Many from the fishing community said they’re under increasing pressure because of out-of-town crews that head south to Bodega Bay to get a head-start on their own seasons, which start Dec. 1 or later.

The relative concentration of Dungeness crab off the Sonoma Coast, which in two of the past four seasons, including last year, was far superior to those of northern ports, has added to the area’s allure.

But the fishery is clearly on a down cycle since reaching its peak in 2010-11.

Statewide, the picture is similar, with seasonal landings reaching 27.5 million pounds in 2010-2011 before topping out at 31.8 million pounds in 2011-12. The 2012-13 state catch fell to 24.3 million pounds. Last year, it was just more than 17 million pounds - though the bulk of that, about 10.4 million, was from south of Mendocino County.

In Bodega Bay, landings totaled 2.7 million pounds valued at $8.1 million, according to figures compiled by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. A year prior, the catch was slightly smaller, by about 19,000 pounds, but brought in $8.5 million - down from $13.2 million the year before that.

State law permits commercial crabbers to harvest male crabs only, and only those that are at least 6¼ inches across at the narrowest part of the body.

Quality tests conducted earlier in the week indicated the crabs would be meaty this year, said California Fish and Wildlife biologist Pete Kalvass.

Results returned Thursday from two of four ports north of Point Arena found the test crabs were above industry standards as well, he said. But additional testing is needed next week on crab harvested outside two other ports to determine if the fishery is mature enough to launch the Northern Region season Dec. 1, as scheduled, Kalvass said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 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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