While many of us spend Thanksgiving indulging in locally caught sport crabs or commercial Dungeness from the Bay Area, hundreds of commercial fishermen who call Crescent City Harbor home are setting thousands of crab traps today, waiting for the Northern California season opener on Sunday.
Some commercial boats might have fewer pots to deploy this year, however, as it is the first season of the Dungeness crab trap limit program, which prohibits vessels from using more traps than allotted by the state.
The program places commercial boats in one of seven tiers, ranging from a minimum allocation of 175 traps up to 500, based on a boat’s recent average crab landings in California. Similar trap limits laws were implemented in Oregon in 2006 and Washington in 1999.
One intent behind the law was to help smaller, independent fishing vessels compete with larger company boats from Oregon and Washington that were known to come down the coast with upwards of 1,000 to 2,000 crab pots, scooping up a disproportionate amount of the catch.
Supporters of the trap limits say it will prevent the “arms race” of boats buying up more and more traps, instead forcing fishermen to work harder for their catch.
Starting this season, “it’s not an arms race with people putting out more and more gear every year,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen‘s Associations, which lobbied for trap limit bills in the past only to have them vetoed by the governor.
“These big guys came in and they weren’t better fishermen, they just had more gear; they came and made it harder,” Grader said. “The good fishermen are still going to do well. They aren’t going to have their costs of gear go up year after year.”
The limit program should also help prevent crab trap loss, which creates ocean debris and hazards.
“People are working the traps that they have harder so there’s much less chance of those being lost,” Grader said.
It was thought that the limit program might prevent the market from being flooded with crab as in year’s past, but Bay Area fishermen, whose season started Nov. 15, have landed Dungeness just as fast as usual.
“There’s been a hell of a lot of crab landed and this area is pretty well fished out for the season,” Grader said of the Central California catch.
And the crab that have been landed are plump and meaty, if not as plentiful as recent banner years across the West Coast.
In Oregon, the commercial crab season will be delayed to at least Dec. 16, after crab quality tests near some Oregon ports showed that crabs were not meaty enough for harvest, making it the second consecutive year of staggered opening on the California-Oregon border.
Crabs tested out of Port of Brookings-Harbor were 24.7 percent meat on Nov. 11, but ports closer to the Washington border, including Astoria, were much lower when last tested (21.4 percent meat on Nov. 5).
Northern California testing in late October and early November showed that the crabs were ready to be harvested on the regularly scheduled opener of Dec. 1. Crescent City crab was 24.5 percent meat when tested Oct. 29.
James “Bernie” Lindley, president of the Brookings Fishermen’s Marketing Association, said that when Northern California and Southern Oregon open at different times, it breaks up the traditional fishing grounds for vessels in his port that have the state border “right in our backyard.”
Besides the season delay, commercial fishermen from the Port of Brookings-Harbor are also lamenting the crab trap limit program in California, since many Brookings vessels have landed the crabs they caught in California back in Oregon. Since crabs landed in Oregon do not count for the trap allocation, many Brookings crabbers are stuck in the lower tier, only allowed to fish 175 pots in California.
The rules are inconsistent since Oregon’s trap limit program counts landings for the entire coast when allocating trap limits.
“I ended up with a 175-pot permit but if all of my landings would’ve been included I would have more like 400 to 450,” Lindley said, adding that most Brookings fishermen with California permits are in the same situation. “We didn’t anticipate they wouldn’t count Oregon landings.”
Changes to the trap limit program could come soon if warranted.
“We’ll just have to see how this season plays out and after that we’ll see if there’s something we need to urgently change or give it a couple more seasons and see what the experience is,” Grader said.