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North Coast crab boats finally head out to sea

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BODEGA BAY — Long-idled fishermen settled Tuesday on an opening price for Dungeness crab, transforming Bodega Harbor into a beehive of activity as they streamed out to open waters to begin the commercial crabbing season at last.

Radiating relief and even cheer as they stocked up for the sleepless days and nights ahead, captains and deckhands wasted no time leaving the docks once stakeholders at the state’s major ports reached agreement on a price.

Crab should hit local markets by the weekend, lured by thousands of traps baited with chunks of squid and mackerel cut up while still frozen on the docks Tuesday.

“We’re just happy to go to work,” said Mark Gentry, a 30-year veteran of the fishery, who had only to finish pumping fuel into the tank of his boat, Rampage, before he and his crew could depart Spud Point Marina on Tuesday afternoon.

“Ready to go play,” said Sean Amoroso, a deckhand on the Donna Mia. “Ready to play and get a paycheck.”

The state’s Dungeness crab catch is typically valued above $60 million, peaking in 2011-12 at $95.5 million. Crabbers make the vast majority of their income in the season’s first few weeks. The opening price agreed to Tuesday is $2.90 a pound, just under the $3 at which they started the 2014-15 season.

Many of the fisherman and, especially, their crews have been through desperate times in recent months as an unprecedented delay in the opening of the commercial season dragged on week after week, caused by an outbreak of harmful algae and a related neurotoxin called domoic acid.

The season normally opens Nov. 15 south of the Mendocino County line and Dec. 1 in waters north of there. The closure meant crabbers missed out on the lucrative Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s markets, with months still to go before the fishery would reopen — though they didn’t know it at the time.

When state regulators earlier this month finally notified commercial crabbers they could begin harvesting the succulent crustaceans last Saturday, the delay had cost them 4 1/2 months.

They waited at dock several days more while test crabs were fetched, cooked and measured to ensure they met the threshold of 25 percent meat. Crabs from different ports came in above the mark, North Coast Fisheries President Mike Lucas said Monday.

Fish processors and fishermen in Bodega Bay, Half Moon Bay and San Francisco all agreed by late Tuesday morning to start the season at $2.90 a pound, inciting a mad dash to acquire bait, fuel, groceries and other necessities no one wanted to buy until they could be sure of covering their costs.

By afternoon, dozens of boats had motored from the harbor out to open ocean as those remaining hustled to join them.

“This is what we love to do,” Annabelle deck hand Merlin Kolb, 45, said as he cut bait and loaded it into plastic containers.

His crew mate, Diego Quiroz, grinned. “We’re going to try to get some money,” Quiroz, 52, said. “Been working for $10 an hour just to make it.”

It’s unclear what can be salvaged of this year’s season before the crab shed their shells and fishing is no longer feasible without harming future generations. Many local crabbers said they hoped to eke at least several weeks out of the fishery, if not a month or two.

And while it had been unclear how many crabbers would participate in the fishery if and when it was finally opened, in the end it appeared all but a handful of the 100 or so commercial boats that normally tie up in Bodega Bay would take part, in addition to many others from north of Sonoma County, where the commercial fishery remains closed, said Stan Carpenter, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.

Reports from recreational crab fisherman, who were permitted to start setting pots March 18, suggest North Coast Dungeness crab are big, meaty and good eating, several commercial crabbers said.

“They’re really good-looking crab,” said Gentry, 52. “I’ve had a couple.”

But starting the season in spring for the first time means the fleet and fish processors are in uncharted waters, and there is plenty of uncertainty ahead about markets, the start of the seasonal molt and other factors, he said.

“There’s nobody happy about this whole thing,” Carpenter said, but “we’re happy the season’s finally open, and we’ll see what we can get. And there’ll be some money flowing into town, so that’s good.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Amoroso as captain of the Donna Mia.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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