Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

On Monday, in a crowded port meeting attended by almost 50 Crescent City commercial crab fishermen, the question was asked: Is anyone opposed to a Jan. 15 opener to the Dungeness crab season?

The room was silent and a consensus was reached.

Forty-nine Northern California crab fishermen, mostly from Crescent City, signed a petition showing support for a Jan. 15 opening day based on "industry-wide concern for thin shelled, weak crab, which would result in significant dead loss. This would be extremely detrimental to the vital live market," the petition said.

On Tuesday, the director of the California Department of Fish and Game delayed the Northern California Dungeness season to Dec. 31 based on "poor quality conditions" observed in recent crab tests, said the director's letter.

Tests from Crescent City on Dec. 6 came in at 22.1 percent meat mass, when crabs need to be at least 25 percent before the season opens, according to testing protocols in California, Oregon and Washington. Eureka crabs weren't much better at 22.7 percent.

But North Coast fishermen are asking for an even longer delay based on the belief that the tests don't reflect the variability of the crab quality out there. The "jumbos," or larger crabs, molted late this year and still have a lot of shell-strengthening and filling out ahead of them, industry experts said. At this point, the smaller crabs actually have thicker shells and more meat, so fishermen want to wait until the jumbos and the little guys are both filled out.

"We feel that by waiting to Jan. 15 the consumer will get the highest quality crab they can get. The crab could be slightly inferior if we started fishing around Dec. 31," said Rick Shepherd, owner of the F/V Sunset and president of the barely active Del Norte Fishermen's Marketing Association. "Our quality right now is marginal, and that doesn't equate to a good price."

Pete Kalvass, a senior environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Game and the agency's Dungeness fishery expert, said that protocol for crab testing wasn't followed properly this year. Because the agency couldn't contract anyone to collect crab for the second round of testing near Trinidad, the agency plans to conduct another Trinidad test next week. Another test for Eureka might also be done, because some deepwater pots were lost during testing.

The tests will probably show that crabs are well above the 25 percent meat mass requirement by Dec. 31, but fishermen hope that DFG Director Chuck Bonham will delay the season anyway due to the consensus among fishermen.

Representatives of the coast-wide Fishermen's Marketing Association based in McKinleyville and the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association both contacted the DFG director in support of more testing and possibly further delay.

At least some buyers support the fishermen as well.

Rick Harris, general manager of Pacific Choice Seafoods in Eureka, one of the region's largest buyers, said he supports a Jan. 15 start because he trusts the fishermen.

"Fishermen are our experts and if they think the crabs will not be to a decent meat-to-shell ratio by January 1, then I support the fleet's desire to wait," Harris said in an email.

Kalvass said that although the director isn't legally bound to the Tri-State Dungeness Crab program guidelines, if he were to extend the season for reasons other than quality of crab, it would cause future problems for cooperative management between California, Oregon and Washington.

But if the crab industry can make a compelling argument that test results do not represent the variability in quality, then the director could side with the fishermen, Kalvass said.

Aaron Newman, president ofthe Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association, said that although many people think waiting longer could help fishermen negotiate a better price, "waiting might also cost us money," he said, adding that every year is different.

"We've been endorsing the idea of more testing to make sure the crabs are going to be good," Newman said.

More testing could mean incorporating a "pinch test," Kalvass said.

This could be conducted with a simple but educated pinch of a crab arm, although that method could be too subjective. The pinch test could also be done objectively with a durometer, a device that measures the hardness of a crab's shell, which is used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Kalvass said.

It's difficult to determine the cause of two consecutive years of late-molting, slow-growing crabs, but the volume of crab pulled into California last season, a state record of 31,680,250pounds, might be an indicator.

"When there is more volume of crab, there is more competition for food," Kalvass said.

So, although the season is starting late again, it might be because there's just so much crab out there. Yum.

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