The Crab Season

by Jim Martin, November 21, 2007

It's not the stuff you can see, they say, that will get you. It's the stuff you can't see.

The November 7th spill of 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil pales in comparison with past incidents in the San Francisco Bay. According to the Associated Press, the top five oil spills in the San Francisco Bay were:

1) 2.7 million gallons in 1937
2) 1.5 million gallons in 1984
3) 840,000 gallons in 1971
4) 400,000 gallons in 1988
5) 120,000 gallons in 2004.

The San Francisco Bay, in other words, is not a pristine environment. In none of the other oil spills was fishing banned. This time was different. This time, the Governor issued an executive order to ban fishing.

Fishermen who read the executive order were initially shocked by its vagueness, breadth and lack of consideration for fisheries unaffected by the spill. If interpreted literally, it would have shut down recreational fishing for halibut in San Diego, for example. The Governor called for the Director of Fish & Game to determine an area affected by the spill, and shut down any open fishing season for a target species affected in that region.

Let's take a look at this key sentence from Arnold Schwarzenegger's order: "The applicable sections of the California Fish and Game Code are suspended for all fishing seasons that are open or scheduled to open between November 8, 2007 and December 1, 2007, to the extent that such marine life is being taken for human consumption in the area impacted by the oil spill, such area to be determined by the Department of Fish and Game, in consultation with OSPR [Office of Spill Prevention and Response]."

The Governor's order was his response to a request by the San Francisco's Crab Boat Owners Association and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations (PCFFA) whose executive director, Zeke Grader, is a Fort Bragg native. They requested that the entire season for Dungeness crab be closed for sport and commercial fishermen, from Point Arena to the Mexican border. There were several reasons for this and not all of them were related to concern for public health.

The inside scoop was that crabbers are looking at a less-than good year due to natural, cyclical fluctuations in the population. The San Francisco boats have been seeking a way to prevent larger boats from Fort Bragg, Eureka and Oregon flooding the market with a high volume of crab, thus lowering prices. This is good for consumers, but bad for fishermen who own smaller boats.

The commercial fishermen's plan was — and rightly so — to sue the shipping company for lost landings. Basing these landings on last year's catch and filing a claim would have been a better deal than pursuing the fishery this year. The much-hated big boats from the north would have been sent home with a huge hole in their wallets. The Bay Area commercial fishermen took a vote and went home, leaving the rest to their lawyers.

The Department of Fish & Game then submitted a proposal for an executive order to ban the harvest of crab in the area south of Point Arena, but someone in the Governor's office got creative and expanded the language to include not just crab, but all fisheries, which created a logistical nightmare and threatened other fisheries outside the area of the spill. The DFG made a judicious interpretation of the order and limited the fishing closure area to three miles from shore and from Point Arena to Point Pedro in San Mateo County.

The commercial crabbers were furious with the decision, which allowed fishing to continue in areas unaffected by the spill. Recreational crabbers already had pots out in Half Moon Bay and Bodega, and none of them reported seeing any oil and were happily consuming their catch. Those that had set crab traps out in front of the Golden Gate and found oil on their gear released the crabs and moved their traps. The local commercial fleet had tied itself to the docks while the Oregon boats moved their gear out to the deep water away from the spill. Landings in San Francisco were prohibited because the crabs are kept in tanks with circulation pumps that would contaminate the catch before offloading. Boats can land in Half Moon Bay and Bodega, if they can find a buyer.

Nobody wants anyone to get sick from tainted crab, and the commercial fishermen talked up that angle in the press to such a degree that it could take years for the market to recover from the imputation. Even so, crab prices are high in the Bay Area, as crabs from the tribal fishery in Washington are supplying the demand. Local processors and crab buyers, including Caito's Fisheries in Fort Bragg, have said they will not buy local crab until the state assures the public of the safety of the seafood.

While the commercial crabbers fumed, recreational crabbers started asking why they had not been consulted about the executive order, or for that matter, why the commercial fishermen did not consider the interests of fishing communities outside the spill area when they requested a blanket closure over three-quarters of the California coast. The Governor has already declared a war on fishing. He promotes no-fishing zones in the ocean, while at the same time advocating increased water diversions to the southland. He is slowly extinguishing many of the Delta's gamefish like striped bass, sturgeon and shad.

As it stands now, the recreational crab season in Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties will open this Saturday, and the commercial season will open December 1st. Down in San Francisco, commercial crabbers are probably considering the dictum, "Be careful what you ask for — you might get it."

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