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Something to Get Crabby About

January 23, 1997|RUSS PARSONS

As if all this rain weren't enough, here's one more thing to get crabby about: This year's harvest of Dungeness crab might be the worst in 20 years.

Partly to blame is the weather, which has been too rough for extended fishing trips. But there's more to it than that. Fishery biologists say there just aren't that many crabs in the ocean this year.

This comes after a string of good years up and down the coast. In California, for example, the average Dungeness haul is about 8 million pounds, roughly 80% of it coming in late December and early January. Last year's harvest was 12.9 million pounds. So far this season, the total is less than 2 million pounds.

The wholesale price of crab right off the boat is as high as $2.65 a pound. Last year it averaged about $1.15.

Fishery officials insist that the problem is not overfishing but rather something unexplainable that happens from time to time.

"The crab fishery is probably one of the best managed in the state because we have so much control over the fishing of the animal," says Ron Warner, an associate marine biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game. "We control the gear it's caught with, we control the take by sex, we control the size of each animal and we have a season."

Only male Dungeness crabs are caught and only when they reach a certain size, which typically takes them 3 1/2 to 4 years. Female and under-sized male crabs are returned to the ocean.

But even these precautions can't prevent the occasional bad year.

"The reality is that Dungeness crab is a cyclical resource," says Nick Furman, director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, an industry-funded group. "Historically, over the last 100 years, you have peaks, then the harvest drops off into valleys. This year is just one of those proverbial fall-on-your-face years."

Warner says "cyclical" isn't quite the right word for it. "When you talk about a cycle, there's some predictable force driving it on a regular basis," he says. "This is not a regular cycle, and we don't know what's causing it."

The situation is complicated by the fact that Dungeness crabs are most vulnerable in their larval form. Scientists haven't determined what was happening in the ocean four years ago to affect this year's harvest.

Guesses range from an extremely strong off-shore current that might have swept the tiny crabs out to sea to a lingering effect of El Nin~o ocean warming. Experiments have shown that female crabs are not as fertile in warm water.

This may not be a one-year thing, either. Although no studies have been done, Warner says the crabbers he's talked to say they're not seeing the usual number of young crabs in their traps.

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