By Jennifer Grimes

Triplicate staff writer

The crab crop is sparse this year, forcing some boats to hang up their pots early and some crew members to go home with smaller paychecks.

Its very slim this year. Make or break for some guys, said Brett Hester of Pacific Choice Fisheries as he waited for a last load of crab from a boat called Willola.

Crescent City Harbor docks are crowded again with boats, but with empty decks. Pick-up trucks pulling flatbed trailers are making their exit from the harbor, loaded down with stacks of crab pots.

I made $18,000 last year. This year I made $6,000 for the same amount of time, said crewman Ken Odirene.

The small crab population is not abnormal and happens in four to five year cycles, according to Pat Collier of the California Fish and Game Department.

It has to do with oceanic conditions and currents, he said.

Bottom currents bring yearly nutrients from decomposed marine life and plants toward shore, Collier explained. If those currents dont well up at the right time, or are nutrient poor, many crabs starve.

It takes about four years for crabs to grow to the legal size. If during those years oceanic conditions arent favorable for growth, harvest populations remain small, Collier said.

Though no definite catch numbers have been calculated by Fish and Game, Collier said It definitely is a smaller population this year.

Fishermen in the harbor yesterday said theyre uncertain how the small harvest will affect crab prices this year or next year.

Steve Worrell, skipper of the Willola, said he feels let down by the small price offered by the fisheries. At the start of the season in December, the buyers and the Fishermens Marketing Association agreed on $1.35 per pound in contrast to the $1.75 they got last year.

We try to stay loyal to certain companies, but it leaves a bad taste in a lot of guys mouths, Worrell said.

Our season was sold for nothing. Nothing, said fisherman Gary Cates.

But with low supply and high demand, Hester said the fishermen could potentially drive the price up. To do so, fishermen would have to stick out the rest of the season. And many say its a gamble to pay for gas and operations when the crab harvest may not meet those costs.

We will spend $3,000 on gas today, said Mike McMillan as his boat Libra was filled with fuel.

Bigger boats going further from shore are having better luck. Crew members on the Libra said theyve had little trouble with pots getting stuck and filled with mud.

Odirene works on a smaller boat and said 150 of their pots got mudded-in, leaving the crew no crab to harvest on their last trip.

Next year should be a lot better, Worrell said. These small crab will be bigger and hopefully the cycle will come back around, he added.