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Waiting Game 

Gear ready, the North Coast's commercial crab fleet is on hold

click to enlarge Curt Wilson stacks crab traps in preparation for the opening of the commercial crab season.

Photo by Thomas Lal

Curt Wilson stacks crab traps in preparation for the opening of the commercial crab season.

Fishermen are optimistic by nature, but spending $5,000 on new crab gear this year is still a risky proposition for commercial crabbers like Curt Wilson. The equipment is expensive, prone to being lost and there has been no certainty in recent years that the commercial Dungeness crab season will start on time, if at all.

Along with the North Coast's brutal winter weather that can ground boats for weeks at a time, a shrinking season means lost fishing opportunities and lost profits.

This year's more than eight-month commercial crab season for Humboldt County waters was set to open Dec. 1 and run through July 15, but it has already been delayed at least until Dec. 31 by regulators due to poor crab quality, or low meat-to-crab weight. This follows on the heels of last year's season, which was also delayed a month due to skimpy crabs and then cut short three months early under the terms of a settlement between the state and an environmental group that sued over concerns about whale entanglements in Dungeness crab gear.

"I just want a chance to fish," said 34-year-old Wilson, the captain and seven-year owner of the Wind Rose boat, who sports a thick beard that seems fitting for winter crabbing.

The North Coast crab fishery is vital to the local and state economies. During the 2018-2019 season, 7.7 million pounds of California's 18.8 million total catch were hauled into docks between Trinidad and Fields Landing at a value of $23 million, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

As Christmas approached and area diners readied for what they'd hoped would include a holiday feast of fresh local crab, Wilson and other North Coast fishermen were busy preparing thousands of hefty traps in the run-up to what they hoped would be a December opening day.

Wilson spent several weeks in his backyard repairing and double-checking his mountain of crab traps and tending to his rugged 34-foot boat, which is more than two decades old and shows time spent on the water on its aging white hull with black and red trim.

"Everything is in a constant state of disrepair," Wilson said, as he heaved a 60-pound trap onto a stack nearby that's been checked and ready to go.

Wilson has stockpiled giant 1,200-foot rolls of brand new braided nylon rope in order to restring frayed or aging lines that connect buoys to traps and has painstakingly rewired any traps damaged in the harsh ocean floor environment.

Faulty traps don't catch crab and a lost trap can cost hundreds of dollars to replace, so dilligence in preperation is important.

Wilson is permitted to drop a total of 250 crab traps under a tiered system of increasing regulations the California Legislature put in place in 2013, hoping to keep track of what had been an unknown number of traps fishing vessels were using statewide. The most any vessel is allowed by the state is 500 traps and the fewest is 175. Each trap must have a numbered plastic tag issued by the state that's unique to each licensed boat. That lets CDFW identify the trap's owner and allows for the return of traps that go astray and are later found.

"It's not uncommon to lose about 10 percent of your gear every year from bad weather, faulty gear and aging lines," Wilson said.

When the roughly 80 crab boat captains who operate out of the Eureka and Trinidad area are allowed to hoist their traps overboard, they'll be relying on previous experience and a little luck to find their catch.

"A lot of fishing is one crab, two crab, three crab." Wilson said. "When you get three to five crabs a trap, you're making money."

An average crab weighs about 1.7 pounds.

"Two pounds is a hog," Wilson said, explaining that crabbing is pretty basic but a lot of hard work. Traps are dropped and later retrieved, sometimes twice a day, often under unfavorable conditions.

Although old-timers have their favorite spots, Wilson said everyone gets an equal shot at the best fishing grounds, which are crowded on opening day. Some drop rows of traps as deep as 600 feet, while others work shallower waters closer to shore. Fishermen may be selfish in their efforts to land the most crab, but Wilson said everyone is mindful of each other on the water and nobody wants to tangle their gear with another crabbers'.

Just where the crab are in any abundant concentration when the season opens is anyone's guess.

Adult male crabs can move considerable distances hunting and foraging for clams, fish and other crustaceans in the muddy sand bottoms offshore. They have a keen sense of smell and fishermen bait their traps with fish to lure them.

A recent Oregon State University study of 20 Dungeness crab fitted with electronic transmitters showed they had an average range of 11.5 miles, although one epic adventuring adult in the group moved more than 50 miles.

"Crab are enormously mobile," said retired Humboldt State University professor David Hankin, who devoted three decades studying crab, the fishery and associated economic issues. "And they are highly cannibalistic."

Only male crabs measuring 6.5 inches or more across the shell may be kept. Most are between 3 and 5 years old, Hankin said. Any females, which have a distinctively wider protective flap on their underbelly, must be returned overboard with undersized males.

Crab molting cycles are different for males and females. Hankin said the crab season is timed to start in December when the males are done molting, their shells have hardened and their body weight has mostly filled out.

Crabs mate when the females molt their hard carapace in the spring. Male crabs mate through an "embrace" with the female, belly-to-belly, when they deposit their sperm.

By February of any given season, an estimated 90 percent of adult male crabs off the North Coast have been captured, Hankin said.

"This means that almost all of the legal sized males have been removed before females molt during spring months," Hankin wrote in an email. "My students and I discovered that virtually all adult females mate with males annually, despite the intense removal of adult males prior to the female molting season in early spring."

Hankin said setting the minimum size limit for males, a practice that dates back nearly 100 years, seems to have been a wise choice for the fishery because it leaves the smaller males that are too small to harvest to do almost all of the mating.

What exactly has been causing poor crab quality in recent years, or low meat weight, which has led to lengthy delays of the commercial season, isn't known to scientists but the crab might be a victim of their own success.

Although crab populations fluctuate widely from year to year, record numbers of crab harvests have occurred in recent years, according to Christy Juhasz, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife's environmental scientist tasked with tracking the entire state's crab fishery from her Santa Rosa office.

"It looks like there are more crab and more competition for food," Juhasz said. "We don't see any long-term population declines. It's been a very reliable fishery for a great number of years."

Statewide, Dungeness crab landings have averaged 10 million pounds, or 4,700 metric tons, over the past 50 seasons, according to the most recent state fishery status report published in 2011. A statewide record high 27.5 million pounds was landed during the 2010-11 season at a value of more than $56 million, according to the report. The Humboldt area catch accounted for more than half of that record catch at 17.7 million pounds.

While the overall crab fishery in the state remains an economic boon, significant issues have emerged surrounding human health risks and whale deaths.

The Dungeness crab fishery was closed entirely in 2015 after toxic levels of domoic acid — the neurotoxin that accumulates in shellfish, crustaceans and other fish — were detected in crabs, which scientists believe was caused by a spike in algae fueled by abornomally warm waters that year.

While naturally occurring at low levels, toxic levels of domoic acid can cause poisoning within 30 minutes to 24 hours of eating affected seafood, according to the California Department of Public Health. Mild cases may include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache and dizziness, while severe cases may lead to difficulty breathing, coma or even death.

Juhasz said the domoic acid event was a tipping point that changed her job dramatically and she now works closely with state health officials to rigorously test for and better understand domoic acid impacts.

In 2017, the U.S. Commerce Department declared a natural disaster for the 2015 season, which allowed Congress to appropriate more than $111 million to be distributed among impacted fishermen, tribes, processors and related businesses.

The closure also happened amid an unprecedented number of whale entanglements along the West Coast in 2015 and 2016, which prompted the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity to sue the state in 2017, alleging the state needed to get an incidental take permit to address endangered whales caught in Dungeness crab fishing gear.

Of the 71 reported whale entanglements in 2016, 54 were of humpback whales, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service data. Most were located off of San Francisco and Monterey bays and were attributed to Dungeness crab gear.

"It took everybody by surprise," said longtime fisherman David Bitts, who has been salmon and crab fishing the North Coast since 1975. Bitts, a former president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens' Association that supports and lobbies for fishermen and their families, has seen the fishery change dramatically over the years.

Bitts said fishermen, who have a great deal of respect and admiration for whales, are trying to do more to prevent their deaths. That includes shortening the length of line, or "scope," that's needed to connect crab traps to buoys.

"Nobody wants his trap to entangle a whale," Bitts said.

The recent beaching of an entangled humpback whale on the Samoa Peninsula in late October was caused by stray crab gear. Efforts to return the whale to the ocean were unsuccessful and the whale was eventually euthanized. It's unclear where the whale became entangled.

When then state shut down the end of the 2016 season as a result of the whale entanglements, it took away what is usually a very lucrative fishing opportunity when male crabs concentrate in the shallower water close to shore to mate.

Like Bitts, many crabbers switch over to fishing Chinook salmon when that season opens in May or June. But for those who continue to fish for crab and brave dropping their traps just outside large and dangerous breaking waves offshore, there is a chance to earn big money.

It's high risk but high reward.

"That spring fishery really pays off for them," Bitts said, explaining that while fishermen may start the season getting only $3 a pound for crab, the scarce late-season crab can fetch as much as $6 from out-of-area markets.

Although the crab fishery has become more complicated in recent years, Bitts remains hopeful.

"You have to be an optimist to do this," he said.

Nathan Rushton is an alumn of the HSU Journalism Department and a self-admitted geek who lives in McKinleyville and prefers he/him pronouns.

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About The Author

Nathan Rushton

Nathan Rushton is an alumn of the HSU Journalism Department and a self-admitted geek who lives in McKinleyville and prefers he/him pronouns.

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