Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – After a month-and-a-half of delay due to low meat quality, the North Coast’s commercial Dungeness crab season is on hold due to rough seas and price uncertainty.
The status of crabbing will be clarified this week, when the results of another round of meat-to-shell ratio testing will surface.
The season would have started on Dec. 1 had crabs shown a meat-shell ratio of 25 percent. Tests in early November showed crabs were far below the standard, with the percentages ranging from 14 to 16.7 percent.
Subsequent results were also disappointing and the latest tests from crabs collected on Dec. 19 from Fort Bragg to Crescent City showed the meat ratios ranging from 19 to 21 percent.
That prevented a Jan. 1 opening and the season was set to start on Jan. 15, the latest date the season can be delayed to.
But fishermen and processors were in no hurry to get going. High ocean swells made fishing too risky and processors wanted to sample more crabs to get an idea of what kind of meat quality they’ll be getting.
Those tests will be done – not by the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) this time, but by the industry – this week. Testing couldn’t be done earlier because crabs couldn’t be legally harvested before the Jan. 15 season start date.
“We’re hoping to get our price negotiations started after the next quality test,” said Harrison Ibach, president of the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association.
Crabbing wouldn’t have started on time anyway due to ocean conditions. Interviewed on Jan. 18, Ibach said, “I just drove out to the jetties to take a look and it looks terrifying.”
The stalled season follows a series of recent disappointments, including a minimal salmon season and the drastic delay of the 2015 to 2016 Dungeness season due to domoic acid.
“An impact like this is pretty severe because most guys have not been to work in quite a while and we’ve been hoping to get to work since December 1,” said Ibach. “And having a quality issue this far into the season is unprecedented – no one’s really heard of crabs being this low in quality this late into the season for a very long time.”
Ibach said a definitive cause for the meat issue hasn’t been identified but it could be “a biomass of crab without a biomass of food that they need.”
Christie Juhasz, a DFW environmental scientist, also said “competition for food” could be a factor along with colder water temperatures.
Cooler water has an advantage, however. Ibach noted that domoic acid, a naturally-occurring toxin associated with warm water and algal blooms, is down to safe levels now and the season’s uncertainty is only due to the meat quality issue.