Crab Catch Reignites Trap Limits Debate in California

November 22, 2010 - 11:42 AM

On The Pacific Ocean, Calif. (AP) - Dungeness crab fishermen for the first time this season hauled in pot after pot of writhing crustaceans here in a rush to fill up boats and get the valuable catch to shore before the market floods and prices fall.

On Wednesday, the first day of the commercial crab harvest, Brookings, Ore.-based captain Joe Speir motored his 50-foot boat, the Equinox, through unusually calm, deep blue seas. A line of buoys marked where his crab pots lay.

With an electric wench humming, Speir's deckhands pulled up hundreds of Dungeness crab from metal traps tethered about 60 feet below. They toiled at lightning speed, taking advantage of the windless, sun-drenched day. The crew threw female and immature crabs over the railing and dumped keepers into the boat's hold before dropping the pots back into the water for another go.

Speir expected to have a full load - an astonishing 30 tons - of crab by midnight on the first day before heading back to the docks to collect his $1.75 per pound. For the Equinox, it was shaping up to be a $100,000 first day in what is expected to be a record-setting crab season here.

"We go around the clock," Speir said from his vessel's deck, bobbing atop slow-rolling swells. "This is going to be a good year, and the next couple of years should be good around here too."

For fishermen based in San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay - ports nearest to this valuable crab fishery - the larger boats from Oregon and Washington that can carry hundreds of crab pots mean less money in their wallets.

This has sowed seeds of resentment, and led to two bills being introduced in the California legislature in recent years, both ultimately vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that would have capped the number of pots a boat could sink.

These caps, some fishermen argue, would give more of the crab share to local, small-and-medium scale fishermen.

The Dungeness crab fishery off the central California coast is lucrative. In 2006, the last good year for Dungeness, crabbers earned nearly $4.4 million, according the state Department of Fish and Game. Of that, about $3.2 million was caught off the San Francisco area.

"More recently we've seen some of these larger northern boats coming in with a tremendous numbers of traps, it's almost an arms race out there," said Zeke Grader, director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents about 1,500 individual members.

"With this big influx of boats ... it means less crab to support the local fishing fleet," Grader said.

With other formerly lucrative regional fisheries like salmon canceled or curtailed in recent years, the competition to get into the Dungeness crabbing has increased.

To protect crab from being overfished, the state has for years restricted the number of commercial licenses to about 600 - but there are no restrictions on the number of traps each boat can deploy.

Oregon-based Speir acknowledged the tension from locals, but said he delivered his catch to a San Francisco-based buyer, so he was contributing to the local seafood economy.

"There's a lot of jealousy in fishing," Speir said.

Game wardens patrolling these waters say it makes no difference where a boat comes from, as long as they are properly licensed.

"I don't care where you come from ... if you have a permit, which helps pay for my job, then they are OK by me," said Lt. Andy Roberts, a game warden who pulled his boat, flying a flag that said "Prepare to be Boarded" alongside the Equinox during a routine patrol.

But local fishermen who rely on crab and other fisheries say there should be limits. Oregon and Washington have already instituted crab trap limits, and California fisheries regulators have watched closely to see if the limits help extend the season and distribute earnings among more fishermen.

So far, early studies show trap limits in Oregon and Washington have not extended seasons there - but they have given more share of the fishery to middle-and-small sized boats at the expense of large-scale fishermen, said Pete Kalvass, a senior marine biologist with California's Department of Fish and Game.

"You might have a boat with 1,000 traps, and if (the largest boats) can only drop 500 traps, like in Oregon and Washington, then the guys at the top will feel the most pain," Kalvass said. "And its still not clear if (smaller boats) are going see much of a change."

But marine biologists do think putting a cap on the total number of crab traps is a good step toward limiting long-term damage to the fishery. Still, Kalvass said while limits would stop the number of crab traps in use from rising unfettered, the best way to reduce irreparable harm to the fishery would be to reduce the number of boats fishing it and, over time, the number of pots being deployed by those vessels.

Grader says limiting the number of licenses to 600 was the first step, and now California needs to finish its protection of the crab fishery by limiting the number of pots.

He expects a new bill will be introduced in January, and that incoming Gov. Jerry Brown will sign it.

"If they enact limits, then northern boats will have to come down and play on an even playing field. Lots of traps take up lots of real estate," Grader said. "Then we'll find out who the good fishermen are."