Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Fishermen are waiting for higher initial price offer

Commercial crab fishermen from Crescent City to Fort Bragg said Friday they are on strike until seafood buyers offer a higher price.

The commercial crab vessels could have been setting gear since Thursday morning, and the season was scheduled to open Sunday, but the North Coast fleet has voted to stay at port until buyers are willing to pay more than the first offer of $2.50 a pound.

"The bait is going into the freezer, which means they're going to be here for a while," said Ron Phillips, president of the Crescent City Harbor Commission, while observing an idle port with boats stacked high with crab traps Friday.

Rick Harris, general manager of Pacific Choice Seafood in Eureka, said his company is offering $2.50 a pound this year - the same as last year's opening price.

Bay Area buyers are currently paying $3 a pound, which is also what they were paying last year, so it seems we're "virtually looking to repeat last year's opening prices," Harris said.

"The market is right where it was last year and it is difficult to get the market up to the level that would also satisfy the price the vessels desire," Harris said.

Crescent City and other ports north of Point Arena could be extra busy when the season does begin, because the opening of crab fisheries north of the California-Oregon border have been delayed until at least Dec. 16.

Commercial boats from the Bay Area might also be lured north, since much of Central California's crab has already been caught despite predictions that California's crab trap limit program, implemented this year, would slow the catch.

After a few banner years for Dungeness crab across the West Coast, this season is expected to be on the downside for what is known to be a cyclical fishery.

"Indications from the fleet is that there are not as many crabs this year as last," Harris said.

Last year, Northern California had one of the top six seasons on record since 1915, landing about 16.3 million pounds of sweet Dungeness crab.

The 31.9 million pounds of crab landed statewide during the 2011-2012 season was the highest amount ever recorded in one season.

As California's top producer of Dungeness crab, Crescent City landings were over 9 million pounds last year. And that was while Crescent City Harbor was still operating far below full capacity, reconstructing the port after severe damage from the March 2011 tsunami.

This year, Crescent City Harbor will be able to offer 234 slips for fishing vessels, although water utilities for some of the docks will not be completed for another few weeks.

Phillips highlighted the importance of providing a safe harbor for commercial fishermen. Crescent City is known to be one of the more easily accessed ports in the region, and the West Coast's Dungeness crab fishery has the highest fatalities per capita of any fishery on the West Coast - deadlier than the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch," which films the Alaskan king crab fishery.

"The Crescent City Harbor is based around fishing and for us to have a completed harbor that accommodates all sizes of boats and to be able to have them go out and fish safely is really a plus," Phillips said."It's also financially good for the harbor to be able to pay our bills."

Since the tsunami wrecked the port, the harbor district has charged discounted rates to fishermen willing to dock in a port damaged or under construction. With the A and B docks officially transferred from lead contractor Dutra Construction to the district's ownership, full rates will be charged.

And that's good for the district, which has to pay off a $5.4 million loan that was taken out to pay for the harbor's portion of the $55 million reconstruction of the port. The new Crescent City Harbor is being called the first truly tsunami-resistant port in the Western Hemisphere.

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