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 as the fleet stays tied up, 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, Ore., 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,” said John Barnett, commercial fisherman and president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. Once a price has been settled, or a northern 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 said. “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 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 to mitigated entanglements of migrating whales in crab gear established Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program, 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 shutdown 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, said Bodega Bay fisherman Dick Ogg.
“It wasn’t a very functional date because we couldn’t get the crab to market in time for Christmas,” Ogg said. “Then the largest market set the price at $2.50. Rather than put everyone in a situation to put everyone backwards where they lose money, we asked each other if we were willing to operate at that level. The answer was no.”
Fishermen are asking for a base price of $3.30, on par with the price at the same time last years, Barnett said. The price combined with an anticipated meager Dungeness crab harvest this year have given fishermen more resolve to hold out for a better price.
“I am so amazed, blown away we’ve been able to hold this together so far,” Ogg said. “If nothing comes out of this, we will have all communicated and worked together. That’s pretty substantial.”
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.
“All is pointing to a lower volume at a low price — this is not the time to push it with a shotgun start in bad weather and risk losing a life,” Barnett said.