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Dungeness crab could be on the table by week’s end

The commercial crabbing season will start on time off the Sonoma Coast this fall for the first time in three years, putting fresh Dungeness crab in local markets by week’s end and restoring long-held autumn and holiday traditions.

Commercial crabbers around Bodega Harbor hustled Monday to load boats with gear and bait and leave port in time to start soaking crab pots off the coast by early Tuesday morning.

Their clocks were set for 6:01 a.m., the first moment by law at which they are permitted to put gear in the water. They can start pulling full pots and landing crab at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, the official start of the season.

“It’s a big deal,” veteran Dick Ogg said by phone Monday from the Karen Jeanne, as he motored to his favored crabbing grounds off Point Reyes with 239 metal crab cages on board. “It’s a very competitive fishery in the beginning.”

The season traditionally starts Nov. 15 in coastal waters south of the Mendocino County line. North of the line, the seasons opens Dec. 1, though the opener can be delayed if samples show that the northern crab still need to mature and reach an established threshold for meat content.

Such is the case this year, and it’s unclear how soon the northern fishery will open, though the volume of northern crabs is reportedly very high.

About 3.3 million pounds, more than $10 million worth of sweet, meaty crab, were landed in Bodega Bay last year despite a delayed local opening and a mid-season strike that kept crabbers up and down the West Coast at docks in solidarity. Statewide landings reached nearly 22.5 million pounds worth $71.4 million to the California fleet, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

But the above-average haul masked problems in the fishery because of elevated levels of a naturally produced neurotoxin that have spelled trouble for the industry and for consumers over several recent seasons.

Algae-related domoic acid closed the Dungeness crab fishery throughout the normally lucrative holiday season in the fall and winter of 2015, depriving those accustomed to having succulent crab at their Thanksgiving table, as well as at Christmas, New Year’s and Chinese New Year, the period during which the bulk of fresh crab are sold.

The curtailed season was disastrous particularly for those who traditionally depend on crab and salmon, given very poor salmon production in recent years.

Then last fall, isolated pockets of elevated domoic acid levels prompted regulators to open the California crab season on a piecemeal basis that disadvantaged smaller boats and the Bodega Bay fleet in particular, crabbers said.

A few crab samples from north of the Mendocino County line have revealed slightly elevated levels of domoic acid this year.

The California Department of Health has advised people to refrain, for the time being, from consuming the guts, or viscera, of crab caught between Laguna Point, north of Fort Bragg, and Humboldt Bay, and between the Klamath River and the Oregon border.

So-called “crab butter” is more likely to have concentrated levels of the substance.

Even after several years of delays and disrupted seasons, crabbers up and down the North Coast contemplated whether to keep their vessels tied at dock for a few more days and hold out for something better than the $3 a pound wholesalers have been offering as a starting price.

Fuel and bait prices continue to rise, yet the commercial crabbing fleet has started at $3 a pound since 2013, without so much as a cost-of-living increase, Ogg said.

But during concurrent Monday morning votes in Half Moon Bay, Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, the consensus of the commercial fleet was to go fishing, despite some continued dissension in the ranks, said Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay.

“They just left the meeting hall here at 100 miles an hour,” Edwards said in the minutes after the vote was settled.

Not everyone is choosing to fish right away, though.

Even though the opening date for the far northern California fishery is still up in the air, word among crabbers is that the crustaceans are much more bountiful up toward Crescent City and less abundant around Bodega Bay and the Bay Area.

Because fair-start regulations require that anyone who has fished south of Mendocino County must wait at least 30 days before they fish in the north, some locals, such as Edwards, have decided to hold off dropping their pots until northern waters open.

Those who start crabbing off Bodega Bay and points south now, they reckon, risk having the bulk of the crab scooped up in short order and then having to wait a whole month before they can move to more plentiful fishing grounds in the north.

“Most of our boats are going,” veteran Bodega Bay fisherman Stan Carpenter said as he readied to launch Monday. “I know three pretty good-size boats that are not going.”

Windsor fisherman Ben Platt said he thought about waiting for the northern fishery but was worried it would mean starting the season in midwinter and bad weather.

Plus, like Ogg, he wants to land some seafood so he can pay his crew, which already has put in three weeks of unpaid work getting the boat ready for crab and waiting for a cut of the proceeds.

Ogg said, “I can’t have my crew wait another two months to get a paycheck.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.