Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Oregon to begin sooner, which worries some fishermen

Although Northern California Dungeness crab fishermen got the Jan. 15 season opener they desired, the announcement that Southern Oregon will start sooner was an unwelcome surprise.

On Thursday, the California Department of Fish and Game announced that the crab fishery in Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino counties will be delayed until Jan. 15 due to low-meat, poor crab quality conditions expected to persist into the new year. Trinidad crabs harvested on Dec. 18 came in at 23.1 percent meat mass, below the target 25 percent meat mass.

Although the area south of Gold Beach is typically in sync with Northern California, Oregon fishery managers decided not to issue further delays, allowing that area to open Dec. 31 with the rest of the Oregon coast.

The split is the first time on record that Southern Oregon's crab season will open separately from Northern California, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials.

James "Bernie" Lindley, president of Brookings Fishermen's Marketing Association said that the situation for Port of Brookings-Harbor fishermen is a "worst case scenario."

Lindley said almost two-thirds of crab fishermen in Brookings-Harbor drop crab pots on both sides of the California-Oregon state line.  News of the split from California came as a surprise to Brookings-Harbor crab fishermen who thought they had successfully conveyed the importance of opening the areas together, Lindley said.

"The people who were making that decision didn't realize how important that was to us, and we feel like they disregarded what our needs are - we feel like we're being thrown under the bus," Lindley said.

Randy Smith, who serves as the Crescent City crab fishermen representative for the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (the interstate outfit that coordinates crab fishery management), expressed the same sentiment.

Although Northern California fishermen got the delay they asked for on their side of the border, Oregon's decision comes as a blow.

"They got thrown under the bus by their own state," Smith said of Brookings crabbers' predicament. "It just causes more problems for everybody."

There are Crescent City fishermen that also fish both sides of the border, Smith said.

"(Brookings-Harbor fishermen) lost half of their grounds and so did some of our guys," Smith said.

Troy Buell, State Fisheries Management Program Leader of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that there was strong, widespread industry support for the Dec. 31 opener to stay in place for the entire Oregon coast. Additionally, his office received comments from Brookings-Harbor fishermen both for and against the Dec. 31 opener, he said.

Brookings-Harbor crab fishermen were already lamenting a recently implemented Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area that prohibits crab fishing from the California-Oregon border to just north of the mouth of the Smith River - an area traditionally crabbed by Brookings-Harbor fishermen.

"They knew we were already in a corner and now they made that corner smaller," Lindley said.

Some Brookings-Harbor fishermen plan to wait to drop pots until Northern California opens Jan. 15, but by that time there might not be many crabs left in Oregon, Lindley said.

"Many guys typically fish half of their pots in Oregon and half in California, now they'll fish all in California or all in Oregon," Lindley said, adding that it will put an excess of fishing pressure on both areas.

Northern California fishermen, for their part, are happy with the decision made by California state officials.

"The fishermen in general feel like the state did a good job this time and did the right thing," Smith said.

Pete Kalvass, a senior environmental scientist with California Fish and Game and the agency's Dungeness fishery expert, said that the DFG staff recommendation to delay was partially based on fishermen and processor support for a delay.

Forty-nine Crescent City fishermen recently signed and submitted a petition asking for a Jan. 15 opener. Other fishermen representatives and seafood buyers also contacted Kalvass supporting a delay, while only one person called for sticking with Dec. 31.

The desire to open later is "unusual" and new to the industry, Kalvass said.

"I don't know if in past years they would not have been happy to have a delay like this," he said.

Last year's Jan. 15 opener was the latest opener in decades, and it proved to be lucrative for fishermen.

"There used to be an idea that it was very important to get crabs on the market for the holiday season and now we're seeing that people that go later get a better product and a better price," said Aaron Newman, president of the Humboldt Fishermen's Marketing Association. "It seems like waiting is the thing to do and the market is willing to wait, too."

The willingness to open later is fueled by the booming live crab market. Thin-shelled crabs, like the ones that prevented the North Coast's season from opening on time, cannot stay alive as well after being beat up in the holding tank.

In today's industry, the live market, mostly exported to China, cannot be ignored.

Live Dungeness crab exports to China have skyrocketed in the last three years, growing by 550 percent from 2009 to 2010 alone. Exports of U.S. crabs to china went from $779,310 worth of crabs in 2009 to $5,083,170 in 2010, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Regardless of industry trends, for Brookings-Harbor fishermen, this is looking like a tough season.

"It's not going to be much of a merry Christmas at all when we anticipate all of the bad stuff that' being dealt," Lindley said. "It's kind of hard to be festive."

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