While last year’s crab season got off to a rocky start due to contentious price negotiations, North Coast fishermen this year will instead have to worry about rough seas and another year of low hauls.
The commercial Dungeness crab season north of the Sonoma-Mendocino county border starts Dec. 1, with crabbers getting a head start to lay down their pots today.
Local crab fisherman Paul Pellegrini was on his fishing vessel on the way back to the North Coast on Wednesday morning traveling from the Central Coast, where most of the crabs had already been “licked up” after the commercial season started earlier this month.
Down in the San Francisco area, crabbers and wholesalers had agreed to a $3 per pound price, with fishermen and stakeholders from Oregon, Washington and Northern California agreeing earlier this week to a $3.10 per pound rate.
“They have the crystal ball,” Pellegrini said. “They go sit down for a couple of days and discuss it. They came out of the negotiations the first day with a $3.10 deal. I know if they tried to get more we’d have got more, but they didn’t try. ... I’m not going to complain about a $3 price, but I still think there was more on the table.”
Last year, the price negotiations were choppy due to preseason testing in Oregon and Washington finding that crabs did not meet the minimum size requirements for allowed take, thus delaying the season by about two weeks in those areas.
California’s North Coast crabs had passed the test, but fishermen and wholesalers in the region were left with the duty of negotiating a price themselves — a task usually left in the hands of stakeholders at the yearly Oregon meeting. With wholesalers wanting a $2.50 per pound rate and crabbers finding $3 to be more reasonable, they finally settled on $2.65 per pound.
Fortunately this year, the crabs meet the size threshold along the northwestern U.S. — but the catch this year is still expected to be low.
“It’s going to be a down year,” Eureka’s Pacific Seafood General Manager Rick Harris said. “What I think is, some areas will produce some crabs and some areas will be extremely poor.”
Harris said that the catch availability normally fluctuates with peak years — a recent one being the 2012-2013 season with about 16.7 million pounds being caught in California’s northern management area — followed by years with emptier pots, according to data from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
California’s northern management area yielded only 6.7 million pounds last year.
“I’m afraid we’re in that really bad time,” Harris said.
The $3.10 crabber to wholesaler price is likely to translate to a $6 to $7 per pound rate for shoppers at the North Coast Co-op in Eureka, according to the store’s meat department Manager Casey Tingle.
“We’re definitely trying to keep our retail on the local stuff on a hot price so we can actually get some moved,” he said.
Sporting crabbers were able to begin their season on Nov. 15 along with commercial crabbers in the Central Coast region. Once Dec. 1 rolls in, Pellegrini said the large fishing fleets will scoop up this year’s harvest with the majority of the catch being taken in during the first week.
The weather is expected to be rainy along the North Coast over the weekend and into Monday, with waves forecast to be steeper on Monday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Brian Garcia.
“All three days — Saturday, Sunday and all the way into opening day there — it’s looking right now that it’s gonna be wet,” he said.
Garcia said crabbers will likely only get rolling waves while setting their pots today, but opening day will be different.
“For probably a good sixhour period, we’ll probably see seas ranging anywhere from 8 to 10 feet near the coast and probably 10 to 12 feet off the coast about 5 to 10 miles,” he said. “Right up the coast, probably more in the 7-to 9-foot range and they’ll be steep, bumpy seas. After we get through the morning hours and get into the afternoon and evening hours, the seas will start shifting down again.”
For Pellegrini, he’s more concerned about the size of the catch.
“Rain or shine doesn’t matter,” he said. “We fish 24 hours a day, and that’s not a problem. We may not work 24 hours a day depending what’s in our gear.”
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