December 16, 2004

Big Crab Catch Sparks Overfishing Worries

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- San Francisco's quintessential meal is fresh Dungeness crab, a glass of chardonnay and sourdough bread. But now, local crab fishermen and connoisseurs worry that one of the city's most beloved delicacies is in trouble, a victim of too many boats pulling up too many crabs all at once.

The anger reached the boiling point after a crush of fishing boats during the season's frenetic first week in mid-November produced a Dungeness glut so big that fishermen say it led to the wholesale dumping of dead or dying crabs into San Francisco Bay. (Dungeness crabs, a chunky-looking creature with a brownish shell the color of faded brick, are supposed to be alive when they are sold to restaurants and processors.)

For food lovers in the San Francisco area, the wasted catch means their chances of buying local Dungeness for the rest of the eight-month season are slim because most of the larger crabs that fall within the legal size limit are now gone.

"The people of the Bay Area need to be outraged because a lot of their winter crabs have been taken and wasted," said fisherman Larry Collins, vice president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. "The crabs are getting harvested too fast. It's greed out of control."

Many longtime local crab fishermen said too many out-of-town crab boats bearing too many traps flooded the market all at once. Seafood processors could not handle the volume, and many crabs died aboard boats before they could be unloaded, they said.

The fishing frenzy has led to a renewed call for restrictions on the number of crab traps, or crab pots, allowed in the waters.

"If they restricted the fishing gear, the crabs would be harvested throughout the season, as opposed to just at the beginning of the season," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The state can impose fines if it confirms that crabs were wasted. The fishermen have taken their complaints and video footage of the docks to the California Fish and Game Commission, which plans to gather more testimony on crab dumping and trap limits at its March meeting, said John Fischer, assistant executive director.

In the past, the San Francisco crab industry was dominated by small, local boats that carried 200 to 300 traps each. In recent years, encouraged by abundant crab harvests, a growing number of fishermen from California's northern coast, Oregon and Washington have arrived with larger boats that often carry more than 1,000 traps.

Another reason for the influx of crab boats: The federal government bought out half the West Coast trawling fleet last year to save fish such as snapper and sole, and many of those fishermen used their government checks to buy new boats and join California's $35 million crab industry.

Despite the increased number of vessels, biologists at the state Department of Fish and Game said the crab population remains healthy because only the largest crabs are allowed to be taken. That allows younger ones to grow into next year's catch.

The state Legislature this year passed a bill imposing a 250-pot limit per vessel for two years, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

Opponents said a 250-pot limit would not be fair to fishermen who have invested in large boats. If the fleet wants pot limits, those limits should be based on a boat's size, said Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, which urged the veto.

Crab fishermen claim there have been several incidents of large-scale crab dumping this season, and they have been circulating a video that shows workers unloading piles of what appear to be dead crabs on the deck of a boat called the Bold Contender at Fisherman's Wharf.

John Tarantino, a San Francisco fishermen, said he saw crew members pitching the dead crabs overboard near the Golden Gate Bridge. "They were using garbage buckets to get rid of them," he said.

The owner of the 400-trap boat, Dennis Sturgell of Warrenton, Ore., denied the crabs were dead. He said he had to wait a day and a half to deliver his catch because there were too many vessels unloading at the same time. At most, he said, his crew threw back 300 pounds of crab because they were too weak to sell.

Sturgell, 52, a crab fisherman for 35 years, is against the proposed trap limits, saying he could never cover the expenses for his $250,000 boat and four-man crew with such restrictions.

"Guys like us who made big investments would be in big trouble," he said.


On the Net:

California Department of Fish and Game: http://www.dfg.ca.gov

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations: http://www.pcffa.org

West Coast Seafood Processors Association: http://www.wcspa.com