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Feeling the pinch: Crabbers report low numbers

Posted: Friday, Nov 29th, 2013

Ray McDonnell puts a Dungeness crab on the scale aboard his fishing boat Friday in the Moss Landing Harbor. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

MOSS LANDING — Cristine Torres came from Salinas to Moss Landing Friday to purchase fresh crab for a post-Thanksgiving family feast. At $6 per pound, their total for seven crabs was just over $72.

Torres was one of dozens who came to the docks to get the coveted crustaceans.

“We always come here to get them,” she said. “The prices are good, and can’t get any fresher. There’s no better place to get them.”

Ron and Marilyn Miller of San Jose also came to the harbor seeking crabs, planning a feast that included a bag of just-purchased oysters.

Several crab boats were selling their wares Friday, all of them charging $6 per pound. They are competing with retailers throughout the county, who are selling crab for $4.99 - $7.99.

Those prices are holding steady from last year, which is good news for consumers.

Crabbers are also fetching the same as last year for their catches — about $3 per pound.

But that good news is tempered by the numbers of crabs they are hauling in — many crabbers say they are getting less than half as much as they were last year.

Ray McDonnell said one haul last year got him 800 pounds. This year he’s getting about 200 pounds per haul.

“It’s really slow,” he said, as he used a large pair of tongs to retrieve a large, feisty crab from his live well for a customer. “And it’s not just me. The whole fleet is experiencing this.”

Vicki Crow, who was selling crabs at a nearby boat, agreed.

“The crabs are good, but there aren’t as many as in the last four years,” she said.

Cathy Fossmark, vice president of the Fishermen’s Association of Moss Landing, said her husband, who sets 300 crab pots in the deeper waters off Half Moon Bay, is faring better.

She also said crabbers are seeing many smaller crabs, which by law must be released. It bodes well for future years, however, when the crabs grow into adults, she said.

The season for the waters north of Mendocino County normally begins Dec. 1, but that has been delayed to Dec. 15 to give adults time to mature, she said.

“There are a tremendous amount of small crab,” she said. “It’s continuing to improve. They have seen five years of good crabbing. I don’t see a decline — the ocean is pretty healthy.”

Lori French, whose husband fishes for crab in Bodega Bay, said they are also seeing fewer crabs than last year and attributed it to natural crab life cycles.

French runs the website Faces of California Fishing.

“That’s just the way crabbing goes,” she said.

Tom Hart, president of the Fisherman’s Association of Moss Landing, said the season got off to a good start, but said he is seeing half the yield from previous years, when he took as much as 6,000 pounds.

Hart places about 250 traps, and sells the entirety of his catch to Phil’s Fish Market in Moss Landing, which pays him $3 per pound.

He said the crab population could improve in the future because of recently-enacted state regulations that place crabbers into a 7-tier system, depending on the size of their past catches. The maximum cap is 500 traps, while the lower tiers allow 175.

Lack of such regulation brought crabbers from Oregon and Washington, where those rules do exist, who set as many as 1,000 traps. Hart said those numbers were tantamount to “clear-cutting” crabbing areas.

The new rules were designed to help extend the crab season.

Hart said the low numbers of crabs are also likely due to natural fluctuations in crab populations.

“It looks like the cycle peaked, and it looks like we’re in for a couple of short seasons,” he said.


Crab prices — a sampling

• Phil’s Fish Market, 7600 Sandholdt Road in Moss Landing: $7.99 per pound for live or cooked

• Stagnaro’s Fish Market, 59 Municipal Wharf, Santa Cruz: $5.95 per pound for fresh, and $6.95 for cooked

• Whole Foods, 1710 41st Ave. in Capitola: $6.99 per pound, more than 4 pounds, $5.99

• Safeway, 2100 Freedom Blvd. in Watsonville: $4.99 per pound

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