Counting down to Thanksgiving crab? It won’t be long now

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Consumers can look forward to eating fresh-caught Dungeness crab later this week as the region’s commercial fleet readies for the fall season, which begins early Thursday morning.

But it’s not without some complication, something that should not surprise crab lovers given delays in previous years because of due to price strikes, safety testing and issues such aslike crab size.

This year, state regulators are opening the main fishery on time but only as far north as Bodega Head while they await a second round of test results from sample crabs taken off the mouth of the Russian River, where a single shellfish collected late last month had elevated levels of domoic acid, a naturally occurring neurotoxin.

The six-crab sample taken a week later tested well within federal limits for the algae-related substance. A second consecutive round of tests is needed before the area can be declared clean and the rest of the Sonoma Coast opened to commercial crabbing.

Local fishermen like Dick Ogg, who has collected some of the pre-season samples for state Fish and Wildlife, said they expect to get good news next week.

“It’s not like it’s a major closure,” said Lorne Edwards, president of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association of Bodega Bay. “It’s probably going to be open next week.”

The Dungeness crab fishery, which earned commercial crabbers more than $47 million statewide in 2017, usually opens Nov. 15 from the Sonoma-Mendocino county line south. It is scheduled to open Dec. 1 along the rest of the North Coast, contingent on samples that can prove the crabs have grown meaty enough.

But the normal routine seems to have changed since the devastating 2015-16 season, when unusually warm ocean conditions helped spur a large algae bloom and an extended period of domoic acid contamination in the crab stock, delaying the harvest for 41/2 months.

Commercial crabbers lost out on the lucrative holiday market that year and endured an excruciating period of uncertainty and hardship made worse by the fact that their other key fishery, salmon, had been crashing, as well.

While the crab fishery has been somewhat restored, each year has brought some glitch that prevented it from having an entirely smooth start.

This year was no different, though the Bodega Bay fleet won an important concession from state regulators that prevented it from being far worse.

The state initially had proposed launching the season south of the 38th parallel near Point Reyes in Marin County. That would have been harder to navigate than Bodega Head, said Ogg, but also would have prohibited local vessels from transporting crab into their home port while preventing local processors from participating in the opening days of the season.

“They would have locked out our boats,” said Edwards. “They wouldn’t have been able to bring the product home. They would have had to have gone to San Francisco to sell,” putting an unfair burden on the local fleet’s mostly smaller vessels and overburdening the San Francisco port.

Commercial crabbers landed more than 2.8 million pounds in Bodega Bay last year worth nearly $11 million to the fishermen, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The fishermen also settled easily with fish processors on an opening price this year, arriving at $3.50 a pound. Prices had been at $3 a pound for several years.

Most of the Bodega Bay fleet will now be participating in the fishery when it opens one minute after midnight Wednesday, except for the 20 percent or so who, like Edwards, will wait for the opening of the Sonoma Coast’s northern reaches.

Since those who fish to the south must wait 30 days before entering any newly opened portion, the fishermen who are willing to wait will have less competition for the crab in that area.

But Ogg said crab lovers would be wise to get it while they can: Recreational crabbers, who started fishing Nov. 3, say there does not appear to be an overabundance of the succulent crustaceans roaming the ocean floor this year.

“The product is not there,” Ogg said. “There’s not a large volume.”

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