Legs Up

The crab season was first delayed due to regulations protecting humpback whales from potential entanglements. Now it’s delayed while crabbers hold out for a higher price.

The California Dungeness crab fishery opened Dec. 23 after more than a month of delay, but no gear has been set and no crab have been offloaded.

The fleet remains tied up and in port, striking against low prices offered by seafood buyers. Holding out over a low price is nothing new for the San Francisco-area fleet, but this strike covers most of the West Coast, from Newport, Oregon to all of California.

Dungeness crab fishermen out of Bodega Bay, San Francisco, Half Moon Bay and Monterey Bay have also agreed to something new – an “organized start,” says John Barnett, commercial fisherman and president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. Once a price has been settled, or a large port breaks and starts fishing, San Francisco Bay area crabbers will agree to a date to set gear and enact a 48-hour soak period to ensure all fishermen will have their gear set before starting to haul.

The nonbinding agreement seeks to prevent a “shotgun start” where fishermen make a mad dash to set gear and start hauling regardless of tides, weather or swell. A shotgun start would also give a significant advantage to larger boats that can carry more gear and handle higher seas.

“This is not legally binding – it could all fall apart,” Barnett says. “We wanted to try to create some organization and this is the first time we’ve done anything like this, so I really hope it works.”

The San Francisco area ports have taken the lead in organizing both the strike and the organized start, but most Monterey Bay fishermen aren’t breaking ranks, keeping their boats tied up until a price can be agreed to.

“There is more unity this year which is good,” says Scott Rouhier, who fishes out of Moss Landing. “It can get frustrating because I haven’t made any money since the salmon season, but we need to stick together more than usual.”

The strike over the price of crab comes after the start of the season – originally slated for Nov. 15 – was delayed twice because of a high number of humpback whales off the coast. Under new regulations called the Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP), which are meant to mitigate the possibility of migrating whales getting entangled in crab gear, a delayed start or a closure can be triggered when more than 20 migrating whales are found to be in a given district.

Under the new rules, an entanglement could potentially shut down the fishery.

By mid-December the humpback whales lingering off the California coast migrated south, and Fish and Wildlife opened the fishery for the entirety of the coast Dec. 23. But neither the price nor the timing worked for California crabbers, Barnett says.

Sherry Flumerfelt, executive director of the Monterey Bay Fisheries Trust, hopes the public understands the meaning of the strike, and opts to stand in unity with the fishermen and wait for the local season to open rather than buying frozen, imported crab.

“This is normally the most lucrative time of the year for them, but they’ve been sitting and waiting and waiting,” she says. “I think it’s important we wait with them and support them. They’re doing this for safety reasons, and so they can survive.

“Let’s hold off on buying imported frozen crab and wait for the fresh, sweet, local Dungeness crab,” she says.

Fishermen are asking for a base price of $3.30 a pound, on par with the price at the same time last year, Barnett says, while the largest buyers are offering around $2.50. The low price combined with an anticipated meager Dungeness crab harvest this year have given fishermen more resolve to strike for a better price. It remains to be seen how long crabbers will hold out and how much buyers will budge on the price, but when it is time to set gear, they’ll prioritize safety over speed.

“This is the first time I’ve seen Monterey Bay talking to other ports and coordinating like this. We’re all in it together,” says David Toriumi, who has fished out of Santa Cruz for a decade. “We can’t be going backwards on price. The consensus is it’s time to put our foot down and demand a price that works for us.”

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