By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Crab pots are beginning to emerge from hibernation all over town as fishermen prepare for the opening of crab season.

Although the season for Dungeness crabs, or Cancer magister, which begins on Dec. 1 will run well into next year, fishermen must be prepared as early as possible, according to crab fisherman Jon Brunsing.

Crabs go straight down in the production curve very quickly, unlike shrimp where you can have good and bad days (during the season), said Brunsing. For the first 24 hours out there its really good fishing.

This early production curve is responsible for the flurry of boats at the start of the season, which Brunsing calls a fire drill. Its also because of this that the smaller boats are allowed to presoak their crab pots 64 hours before the season officially begins so they can have a competitive edge.

Little boats need more time to get their gear out and get it in the water, said Brunsing, who said he has been crabbing for 30 years in Del Norte waters. The dealers dont like the presoak because it creates a larger quantity of crabs early in the season.

Ultimately, however, the amount of Dungeness crabs in any given season depends on conditions that have yet to be understood by marine biologists.

In the 1973-1974 season, the Crescent City/Eureka/Ft. Bragg region caught only 354,282 pounds of crab. Three years later, the same region caught 25,631,936 pounds.

Theres been studies on them but they havent figured out where they go, said Brunsing. And if there are crabs here, they can leave very quickly and you cant keep up with them. They have found tagged crabs traveled up to 80 miles in a couple of months.

Brunsing said only crabs of notable size and maturity may be taken. If crab sizes are marginal they must be measured and the process can slow down a harvest. According to the Fish and Game Commission, crabs must have two rigid circular openings of not less than four and one-quarter inches inside diameter, so constructed that the lowest portion of each opening is no lower than five inches from the top of the crab.

According to Game Warden Daniel Beck of the Department of Fish and Game, every person involved in sport crab fishing is required to carry a measuring device while taking invertebrates, a similar rule applies to commercial fishing.

The fishermen are also required to take along some courage, Beck said while referring to Alaskan crab fishermen who are purported to have the most dangerous occupation in the world. Its hard out there going after any kind of crab just the opportunities to get entangled, getting smashed under crab pots that can easily weigh over a hundred pounds, or to get washed overboard.

Before any of the crabbing begins, however, the prices must be set. This is a complicated scenario that involves Pacific Choice Seafood, the major buyer on the West Coast, fishermen out of Newport, Ore., who own some of the larger boats, tribes that are allowed by law to jump ahead of the season and groups up and down the coast, like the Del Norte Fishermens Marketing Association.

A failure to agree upon a price has kept crab-fishing boats moored in Bodega Bay, where the season opened on Nov. 15.

Brunsing said an interesting trend among the 100-or-so permitted boats in Crescent Citys harbor relates to the ages of the owners.

Of all the people I know, and there are a lot of them, only two guys are under 40 years old, said Brunsing, who credits part of the aging fleet to the cost of running a boat. I own my boat now so my overhead is way, way down. For a young person to buy a new boat, and make those payments, and the other costs like bait and gear, it would be tough to make ends meet.

Dungeness season in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties opens on the first Saturday preceding Dec. 1, or on Dec. 1 when it falls on a Saturday. Beck said the importance of Dungeness crab season can not be overstated in the state.

This is our big thing for the year, said Beck. Dungeness crab falls between number one and number three in taken fish in all of California. Its huge.