First came whales, then came a price most West Coast Dungeness crabbers deemed too low to fish for, but after nearly two months of having their gear at the ready, San Francisco area fishermen finally set their pots Monday, 11 January, at 8 a.m. They will begin hauling on Wednesday, 13 January, at the same time, under an “organized start” – agreed to by fleets out of Half Moon Bay, San Francisco, and Bodega Bay – to prevent a mad dash, shotgun start once a price had been agreed to.
“Holy Christ has this season been a mess,” Dick Ogg, who runs the F/V Karen Jeanne out of Bodega Bay, said. “But the fleet has really come together. If this works, which it looks like it will, it will be pretty amazing and will have a lasting imprint on the fleet.”
The California Dungeness crab season was originally slated to start on 15 November, but was delayed twice because of a high number of humpback whales off the coast. Under new regulations to mitigate entanglements of migrating whales in crab gear, the state established its risk assessment and mitigation program. That means a delayed start or a closure can be triggered when more than 20 migrating whales are found to be in a given district. Under the new rules, an entanglement could potentially shut down the fishery.
The season officially opened on 23 December, but no gear was set, as California crabbers joined a holdout over low prices offered by seafood buyers, with the strike covering most of the West Coast from Newport, Oregon, to all of California.
Dungeness crab fishermen out of Bodega Bay, San Francisco, and Half Moon Bay (making up District 10 ports) agreed to something new – an “organized start,” John Barnett, commercial fisherman and president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, said.
The fleets agreed to select a day to set gear after a price had been agreed to, followed by a 48-hour buffer before boats could begin hauling. This was put into practice with fishermen setting gear Monday and starting to haul Wednesday after a price was secured on Friday, 8 January.
The nonbinding gentlemen’s agreement sought to prevent a “shotgun start” where fishermen would make a mad dash to set gear and start hauling regardless of tides, weather, or swell. A shotgun start would also have given a significant advantage to larger boats that can carry more gear and handle higher seas.
Fishermen struck over a USD 2.50 (EUR 2.05) per pound price offered by the largest seafood buyers and instead asked for a base price of USD 3.30 (EUR 2.71), on par with the price at the same time in past years. The price combined with an anticipated meager Dungeness crab harvest this year have given fishermen more resolve to hold out for a better price. After weeks of delay, California crabbers agreed to a base price of USD 2.75 (EUR 2.26), Ogg said.
After years of litigation over whale entanglements, increased scrutiny from regulators and delayed starts over domoic acid, Ogg sees the recent display of solidarity in the fleet as boding well for crabbers in the future.
“We all need to work together on a common goal,” he said. “We’re starting to do just that.”
Reporting by Nick Rahaim
Photo courtesy of Faces of California Fishing