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.