Crab industry could feel pinch

Crustacean-obsessed gastronomes might endure a disappointing crab-eating orgy this holiday season.

Crab pots are sitting on docks at Fisherman’s Wharf in preparation for the annual Dungeness crab season, which begins locally Sunday, but another weak harvest has been forecast.

San Francisco’s open-ocean crab fishery reached a 10-year low last season, but researchers predict a slight improvement this time around, California Department of Fish and Game biologist Peter Kalvass said.

The department predicts annual harvests by analyzing previous years’ studies of young crab numbers and expected growth rates.

“It was quite a poor season last year all around and it has nowhere to go but up,” Kalvass said. “In the season after this one, we might expect an upswing. It’s a cyclical fishery.”

The 1.1 million tons of Dungeness crab harvested off the coast of San Francisco was less than one-third of the average annual local catch recorded over the past decade, department figures show.

Sport fishermen have reported catching good numbers of crabs in their pots this fall, but the crabs have been small, according to Alioto-Lazio Fish Company trader Angela Cincotta.

To protect fisheries, California requires fishermen to return small crabs to the ocean.

Cincotta said it’s too early to tell how successful this season will be for crabbers, which will affect the prices paid for crabs and crab meat by diners and shoppers.

A handful of local crabbers have already indicated they are unwilling to gamble on a potentially weak local season.

Of the 30 to 38 boats that normally sell crabs to San Francisco buyers, five or six will head north to Eureka or Crescent City, according to Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association of San Francisco.

Those Northern California crab fisheries open for commercial fishers two weeks after the San Francisco fishery, but they have historically provided more bountiful harvests, according to Collins.

The crab season has grown in importance for Californian fishermen, who have been barred from harvesting salmon and herring due to crashes in their populations.

“We can go offshore and catch tuna,” Collins said. “But salmon and crabs have always been the main fisheries.”San Francisco

Dungeness crab harvests

2008-09   1.1 million pounds
2007-08   3.6 million pounds
2006-07   6.0 million pounds
2005-06   6.0 million pounds
2004-05   6.1 million pounds
2003-04   5.3 million pounds
2002-03   4.3 million pounds
2001-02   1.7 million pounds
2000-01   1.7 million pounds
1999-2000  0.9 million pounds

Source: California Department of Fish and Game

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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