Dismal year for crabbing

The weather at Bodega Bay was aglow on Saturday during the start of the commercial crab season, but for those fishermen hoping to catch Dungeness, it might as well have been raining.

“It’s just horrible,” said Bill Alexander, the captain and owner of a crab boat in these waters for the past 11 years. “We’ve caught only one crab to the pot today.”

With a set price of $2 per pound, and an average weight of two pounds per crab, that’s a mere $4 per trap for Alexander and his crew. To cut their losses they cut the day short, returning to harbor early on the first day of the season.

This is significant because Dungeness crab are sold in highly competitive fisheries, according to Tom Moore of the California Department of Fish and Game.

“All the crabs that are legal are out there,” Moore said. “Every time the fishermen delay fishing, typically they don’t gain anything. It usually doesn’t pay to stay tied up in the dock.”

While the dismal outlook for the season is widespread, there are many perspectives on its cause.

Tony Anello, owner of the Spud Point Crab Company, guessed that the low numbers might have to do with the oil spill last year in the San Francisco Bay. “We’ve got no way of really knowing that it’s the cause, but it might have something to do with it,” he said. Anello’s four boats normally average 10 pounds per pot during the season’s start, but today they were seeing only four to six pounds come in. “That’s very, very poor for this time of year,” Anello said.

Many say that the drop in harvestable crab this year is part of a natural cycle. According to Moore, the number of crab in the sea fluctuates regularly.

“We’re just in a down cycle,” said Moore, adding that each phase generally lasts for five to seven years. And for the past four, the numbers have been high. The tides might have turned on the industry for now, but for the fishermen of West Marin and beyond, there is hope that this trend will soon reverse.

More and more adolescent crabs have been spotted in the area, which should be ready to harvest within just a few years. “Fishermen tell me they expect to see a lot in a couple of years because of the number of small ones,” Moore said.

When coupled with the low price per pound, this current lack of crab could lead to a particularly short season this year, especially once the docks in the north start their own and supply starts to rise. According to Moore, this could lead to, “a break point when it’s just not worth going out and getting the crab and guys start bringing their gear in. They’re not going to go out and spend money to not make money. It may be only three or four weeks from now when guys start saying ‘okay, I’m done’.”

Despite the short supply, most commercial boats in the area will undoubtedly continue to fish crab for the next few weeks, leaving their pots to soak overnight and collecting them in the following day.

Anello and others in the area say that they can bear any price during the holidays, but once the northern areas open, “the price plummets, and we have only so much profit to make at just $2 a pound.”

Anello is also an advocate for stronger legislation behind crab fishing here, and said there needs to be more of a “level playing field” between the smaller and larger operations. He mentioned that an advisory board had been recently created that should help to alleviate the overfishing. “We must all agree to a pot limit, which would make everyone equal and preserve this resource. Otherwise any natural phenomenon could kill off all the crab we must have safety measures to prevent this.”

At least one of Bodega Bay’s members was hopeful about the situation. Alex O’Bannon, who works on a smaller ship, simply called this a “scratch year” one that begins poorly but still manages to produce enough crab for the fishermen to get by. “It’s going to start slow this year, and it’ll be a long, steady season,” O’Bannon said. “Just like last year.”