Dungeness crab fishermen are poised to receive a financial boost via a Port plan that's set to be approved Tuesday.(Eric Risberg/2013 AP file photo)

Dungeness crab fishermen clawing toward big season

Hundreds of Dungeness crab commercial fishermen got cracking on harvesting the season's first batch of San Francisco crustaceans this past weekend, though an industry expert said Sunday that it is too soon to tell just how bountiful the season will be.

An official crab count since the season opened Saturday was not yet available, but it was estimated that 300 to 400 boats initially dotted the waters off San Francisco. The majority of vessels came from north of Mendocino County, where the season doesn't officially begin until Dec. 1, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.

“We're guardedly optimistic,” Grader said of this year's Bay Area crabbing season. “We could very well be looking at year records for this time of year, but that doesn't mean there's necessarily more crab than in previous years, it just means more crab has been harvested earlier.”

Crab seasons tend to be cyclical, with the last few years considered strong in the Bay Area after a 40-year rough patch that began in the 1950s. Demand for Dungeness crab — a particularly popular dish in the Bay Area — generally peaks around Thanksgiving, and then drops off until just before Christmas.

Fishermen don't yet know whether California's severe drought will affect the Dungeness population.

“Crabs, particularly in this area, use the San Francisco Bay as their nursery,” Grader said. “If the ecosystem of the estuary is affected at all [by the drought], it could affect the abundance of crab.”

However, Dungeness crab cannot really be “overfished,” Grader explained, because restrictions limit how many traps boats can use. Additionally, only male crabs that have spawned can be harvested.

Crab season lasts until June, though industry officials are concerned that the season could be shorter this year due to the amount of commercial fishing boats already clawing for crabs.

“Some years we've seen basically all the available crab harvested in a period of two weeks,” Grader said. “We like to see it spread out more.”

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