Commercial Crab Season Set to Get Cracking Saturday

This is how the opening of crab season looked in 2013 in San Francisco. (Lauren Sommer/KQED)

By Marissa Ortega-Welch

Past the tourist traps at Fisherman's Wharf, the real fishermen of San Francisco are at work hoisting stacks of crab pots onto boats that line the pier.

The commercial Dungeness crab season in California opens Saturday. Fishermen are still in negotiations with wholesalers about a price, but say they hope to settle on that by Friday.

If they do, the Bay Area will have fresh crab by the weekend.

"I've seen some of the sport crab that the recreational guys caught," says Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. "It's beautiful crab and we're excited."

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This will be the second season for a new regulation that limits the number of crab pots each boat can have. The regulation was intended to reduce overcrowding in fishing areas, lengthen the season and reduce the amount of gear in the water in which other animals can get caught.

A spokeswoman at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says it's too soon to know whether the regulations are achieving their goals. But fishermen are happy with how well the changes worked in the first year, says Zeke Grader, executive director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

"It's basically cut back on what was an arms race in the crab fishery," he says, "everyone needing to have more and more traps just to compete."

Grader says he used to see some crabbing boats with 1,000 to 2,000 crab pots taking up prime property in the ocean. Now the most that a boat can have is 500.

And he says fishermen have been able to catch the same amount of crab with fewer pots. They just pull up and rebait their traps more often now. That means less money they have to invest in equipment and less chance of losing their gear.

Oregon and Washington have had similar trap limits in place for years. Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife, says the trap limits have had little effect on the amount of crab caught.

"Our fishermen have discovered it makes them more efficient because they don’t need to fish with as much gear," he says. “We’ve had some of our biggest years since pot limits were imposed."

Dungeness crab populations cycle through abundant and skimpy years. The population has been high in California for the past few years, leading some biologists to speculate that this year could be lower.

Still, fishermen like Collins remain hopeful.

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"We're always hoping for a good season," Collins says. "We're optimistic because we're fishermen."

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