Out of the tens of millions of pounds of Dungeness crab caught in one West Coast season, the vast majority — more than 70 percent — is caught within the first two weeks of season opener. This statistic makes the first few chaotic weeks of the season all the more important for making money. And also potentially more dangerous.
After more than six weeks of delay due to low meat-to-shell ratios found in North Coast crab, Northern California’s Dungeness crab season will begin at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. It’s the second time in two years that the season was delayed to the maximum extent possible by state law, Jan. 15. Last year was the first time in decades.
Loading boats with as many crab traps as logistically possible is commonplace in order to set traps quickly and efficiently during the pre-soak period, a 36-hour window for dropping crab pots before they can be pulled on Tuesday.
Stacking the deck with hundreds of heavy pots, at more than 100 pounds apiece, can quickly make a vessel top heavy. Commercial fishermen cut down on the load if ocean conditions are rough, but when boats are stacked to the brim, the deck weight can easily pass 50,000 pounds. Then, even the smallest waves can pose a problem.
“This is a dangerous time when they are loaded like that,” said Randy Smith, a Crescent City commercial crab fisherman who often serves as a representative for the local fleet. “In the in the past we’ve lost boats from loading it wrong or not matching the weather or misjudging it. Hopefully we got good weather.”
A contributing factor to the potential hazard is exhaustion, as fishermen work around the clock to deploy all of their pots in the 36-hour period, especially on smaller boats that cannot carry as many traps at a time. California crabbers would prefer a 64-hour pre-soak period like in Oregon and Washington, Smith said.
“It makes it really hard, especially for smaller boats. They’ll be setting gear non-stop until it’s time to pull gear,” Smith said. “There are real safety issues. Sleep deprivation is not good — they are exhausted.”
These safety concerns are the nature of “derby fisheries,” and Dungeness crab is one of the last on the West Coast, producing an annual race for crab. A 2003 scholarly article on the Dungeness crab fishery in California said that derby fisheries tend to promote “hazardous fishing conditions.”
Adding to the crab opening chaos is the fact that the Crescent City Harbor is still operating at less than half of regular capacity, due to the destruction of docks in the March 2011 tsunami. The harbor district currently has 86 slips and has a waiting list of more than 40 vessels hoping to get a spot in Crescent City Harbor.
Crab fishermen are drawn to Crescent City this year, “because it was so good here last year,” said Harbormaster Richard Young. Last year’s opening price was $3 per pound off the boat — a record opening price for the North Coast. “It’s one of the years where Crescent City is a really popular place. It’s unfortunate for us because we don’t’ have the capacity to accommodate everyone who wanted to come here.”
The opening price for the North Coast this year has yet to be set.
Because the Northern California fishery is so desirable, there is concern among local fishermen that some out-of-towners might try to drop pots off the California North Coast before they are legally allowed.
In years where certain areas of the West Coast have a delayed season opener, like this year, boats that land crab from the earlier-opening areas (central California and all of Oregon) are not allowed to fish in the delayed area for 30 days after it opens. For example, if fishermen have been catching crab in Oregon since the season opened Dec. 31, they may not fish Northern California until Feb. 15, 30 days after the Jan. 15 opener.
This is the first year in history that Crescent City and Brookings are opening at different times, and since the catch so far hasn’t been great out of Brookings, there are some concerns that Brookings fishermen may deny that they’ve caught crab in Oregon in order to fish in California
In order to prevent these possible transgressions, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (recently changed from Fish and Game) will have six marine wardens working during the first few days of the season. Setting pots early — before noon on Sunday — is another concern, as everyone is trying to get pots set as quick as possible.
“Sunday night will be just crazy with people coming and going trying to get gear loaded,” Young said. “Docks will be busy, fork lifts will be buzzing around — it will just be bananas.”