The December issue of the Port of Grays Harbor’s “Around the Docks” newsletter heralds the start of the commercial crab season at Westport.
But for most non-Indian crab fishermen based out of the state’s most lucrative fishing port, the season has yet to begin and could still be three weeks away from an already-late start.
Although tribal fishermen have already begun their season, the coastal Dungeness crab fishery north of Klipsan Beach in Pacific County remains closed until at least Jan. 24.
The late season is a fact of life along the entire West Coast, explains Ray Toste, president of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fishermen’s Association.
Normally, most of Oregon, Northern California, and southern Washington opens on Dec. 1 for crabbing, but all the areas this year had issues with what are known as “soft shells” in the industry, Toste said.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean the shells are soft, it’s just that the pick-out percentage of crab meat didn’t meet what we consider to be standards,” Toste said.
“Our delay up until Dec. 31 was due to crab conditions,” added Heather Reed, coastal policy coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Reed said testing is done to determine the primary molting period for the crab.
“What’s happening is the crabs have shed their old shells, and they are getting their new shells and filling back up with meat,” she said. “We don’t want to open the season when the crab are not completely full. So our tests are to go out and test the meat percentage in the crab.”
Reed noted that the tribal fishery also has been delayed because of shell conditions
“When their fishery gets started late, it pushes back our state season opening,” she said.
The tribes also do testing “and they have some good quality crab on our north coast,” Reed said of this season’s early reports.
Since California, Oregon and Washington coordinate their non-tribal commercial crab seasons, all must delay until conditions warrant an opening.
Crab seasons depend on early testing to determine if the crabs are big enough and mature enough to begin harvesting. Crabs from Cascade Head, Ore., south to California must have a pick-out rate of 25 percent to be considered viable for market, Toste said.
“This is what keeps our market going and going well. Much less than that, it’s not so good,” Toste said.
That area to the south below the California-Oregon border still is closed “because the crab are not ready to go yet,” he said.
It should open on Jan. 15, Toste estimated, which means the Washington coast north of Klipsan Beach should then open the following week. The area from the California border to Klipsan Beach, which is 14 miles north of the Columbia River, opened Jan. 1.
“California still has issues,” Toste said.
In the San Francisco Bay, Bodega Bay and Half Moon Bay areas of Northern California, the season also got off to a contentious start when crab fishermen basically went on strike to oppose proposed cuts in prices. Buyers wanted to lower their prices from $3 per pound to as low as $1.80 per pound because of a glut of Dungeness right after Thanksgiving that left a surplus in the big grocery stores.
In 2011, more than 27 million pounds of Dungeness crab were landed in Washington state with a value of more than $83.6 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. It was estimated the Dungeness crab catch last year amounted to a $185.4 million industry along the West Coast.
The state Department of Wildlife lists 228 coastal commercial Dungeness crab license holders and estimates about 200 of those are active.
Tribal quotas first must be taken into account because of federal court rulings, and the Department of Wildlife co-manages the coastal commercial Dungeness crab fishery with four coastal treaty tribes: the Quinaults, the Hoh, the Quileutes and the Makah.
Each tribe has separate “usual and accustomed” fishing grounds and tribes are entitled to harvest up to 50 percent of the available crab in those areas.
Tribal crab fishermen have been doing well so far, Toste said.
Non-tribal crab fishermen already have missed on traditionally lucrative markets for Christmas and New Year’s crab. Also upcoming is the Super Bowl, which also seems to fuel crab consuming.
“The sooner we go, the better we go financially,” Toste said. “We do miss the bulk of all that.”
As the season goes on and the crab get filled out, they also become harder to catch, he noted.
The delay in the season is causing hardship for families that depend on fishing incomes, said Kathi Patterson, the wife of a longtime crab fisherman, Leon Patterson.
As Leon spent the past week working to prepare the boat and gear, Kathi worried about how bills would be paid until her husband could get out and start bringing in the prized catch.
“My husband used to go out the day after Thanksgiving,” Patterson said. “My husband understands it all because he’s a crab fishermen, but as a wife watching the stress on how we’re going to make the house payment from September to January … it makes me angry. When you finally get to go in January, you are trying to make up for five months of bills.”
Last season also was a late-starting year, but there were record catches in southern West Coast fishing locations.
Toste said 2012 was “average to below average” for most crab boats out of Westport.
Reports now are that crab sizes have been large on the northern end of the Washington coast, particularly in the Quileute and Makah traditional tribal fishing areas.
“There were lots of them and they were heavy with meat, and that’s something I’ve never seen,” Toste said, hoping some of those would migrate a bit farther south. “Crab move around. We’ll know more when it opens.”
“Only Mother Nature knows,” Toste cautions.
A later season opening makes for increased competition for local fishermen and somewhat of a crap shoot for some who might choose to head south for the earlier opening. The crab fishermen, however, also must abide by fair-start regulations. That means if you fish early in one area, you have to wait until others who haven’t started their season get a jump on the staggered openers.
The waiting period is 35 days if you have fished in the early opener.
“Some boats will decide to fish in that early opener south of Klipsan Beach … . Fishermen have their own traditional fishing grounds. While some will move and start early down south, a lot want to fish in their home fishing grounds outside of Westport, so they will wait,” Reed explained.
“Uncertainty, and not knowing when the fishery will be open is stressful on folks, and they know a lot is being discussed about when the season will open,” she added