BY DAVE HURLEY
The first Saturday in November is a highly anticipated benchmark in northern California as this is traditionally the first date in which Dungeness crab can be taken by sport anglers. Campgrounds and hotels from Monterey north to Fort Bragg are sold out in preparation for this opening day with the apex of the season taking place from Half Moon Bay to Bodega Bay.
This season was no exception as the party boats out of Half Moon Bay, San Francisco Bay, and Bodega Bay have come in with 10-crab limits every trip since the opener. However, with the current Shelter In Place Order regulations imposed on the Bay Area region until at least January 4th, the party boats berthed in San Francisco will not be able to operate for the remainder of the 2020 rockfish season as the season closes on December 31st. At the present time, the harbors of Emeryville, Berkeley, Richmond, Sausalito, and Loch Lomond remain open, but this could change within the coming days. The Shelter In Place Order for the Bay Area region will last until at least January 4, 2021. However, there is a second, and more potent threat to the viability of the popular crab combination trips – proposed regulation changes for the recreational season starting in November 2021.
I had the opportunity to go on a crab combination trip with Captain Jerad Davis of the Salty Lady, currently operating out of Emeryville, on December 3 – three days before the Shelter In Place was enforced. The Salty Lady is a well-known salmon boat normally housed in Sausalito, and Davis was the right-hand man, second captain, and first deckhand for the legendary late Captain Roger Thomas. Davis is keeping in the excellent tradition established by Thomas, and he has added the crab combination trips to their repertoire.
Accompanying me on this venture was my stepson, Ryan Hudlin of Oakland, and we were celebrating his 36th birthday. As the Marin coastline has been wiped clean of quality rockfish at this time of year, all of the large party boats were making the 17-plus mile trek to the Farallon Islands to find both quality and quantity of rockfish. In addition, the best producing pots are located in the deep water. Davis prepared us for the long ride in his opening welcome to the 18 passengers on board, and he said, “It’s time to relax since we will be arriving at the pots in about an hour and a half so just take it easy as it is a long ride.” Ryan and I took advantage of sitting on the bow to observe the amazing beauty of San Francisco Bay in the early morning with the sun coming over the Oakland hills and the spectacular view of the lights of the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline. This alone is worth the price of the trip.
After passing Point Bonita in very calm conditions, we moved to the stern to avoid any spray coming on the bow. When we came close to the crab pots, Davis asked me to keep count, saying, “We are going to pull this string of 7 pots, and if we don’t get limits, we will pull some more pots on the way home from the Farallons.” I quickly did the math in my head and thought, “We need to average 30 crab per pot to make limits, I don’t think this is going to happen.” I was thinking this because my last two trips to pull crab pots in shallower water were far less productive with a 15-crab pot being the highliner. Much to my surprise, the first pot came up with 36 crab, the second with 38, then onto over 40, and when the sixth pot came in with over 50 crab, we were on our way to the Farallons with a load of jumbos.
On the way out of the Farallons, Captain Jerad got on the loudspeaker and advised anglers to get ready, saying, “The water has been very cold, and the rockfish have been reluctant to bite. This isn’t a trip where we are going to land many lingcod so if your game plan is to go for a ling, you will most likely be disappointed and come up short of your rockfish limits. The lings migrate to the shallows at this time of year, and they are few and far between out here right now.”
Having the advantage of watching all the party boat scores over the past several weeks, I was well aware of the lack of lingcod, and I was determined to try exclusively for rockfish with custom Bud Chaddock’s Squidme shrimp flies. It has been my day on several occasions this past year whether it be for salmon or for white seabass, but this wasn’t one for the books for me as I ended up hooking more rocks than rockfish. It really wasn’t about me this day, and I was pleased to watch Ryan put together a limit using Squidme shrimp flies in the deep water, including a quality vermilion over 5 pounds. He also landed a big boccaccio that he was pretty proud of, but I told him, “Don’t get too excited about that wormburner – the vermilion is really the prize.” This was only his second time on a boat, and he had a great time – that was far more important than me catching fish. Of course I took home a limit, but there were several “mercy” fish in my sack – the good thing is, although they not be the largest, mercy fish all taste the same.
The crab combinations bring out the crowds, rejuvenating the economies of the local harbor cites, but there is a proposal scheduled for the upcoming California Fish and Game Commission on December 9-10 for the 2021 season. The proposal is that both the recreational and commercial crab season will be delayed if there is a presence of humpbacked whales like the past two years. The commercial season has been delayed the past two years, and the earliest that it will open below Point Arena is December 16.
This is a very complex issue, and it is sad to see all of the crab gear stacked on the boats ready to be dropped, but the delay of the commercial season has resulted in pitting commercial versus recreational anglers – a situation that must be avoided at all costs.
Although I have never fished commercially, my path was forged by my great-grandfather, grandfather, and great-uncles who were commercial fishermen in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. They saw their livelihood dramatically altered when the commercial salmon fishery was closed in 1958 due to the effects of the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River. Human interaction has irreparably changed our landscape, and traditional ways of making a living go by the wayside.
As tragic as it is for the commercial crab fishermen, and it is tragic to see someone’s livelihood ripped away from them due to factors in which they have no control, it is important to review the facts.
It is clear that whale and sea turtle entanglements have increased over the past several years, and it is tragic for a magnificent mammal to be trapped by lines and pots that they can’t release on their own.
There are three distinct humpback whale populations along the West Coast. The threatened Mexico population feeds off the West Coast and Alaska, the endangered Central America population feeds exclusively off California and Oregon, and the Western North Pacific population that feeds off the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Since one of the distinct groups has an estimated population of less than 800 individuals, they are particularly at risk for entanglement, although ship strikes are a major cause of mortality. According to a 2019 press release from the Center of Biological Diversity, at least 54 humpback whales were found tangled in fishing gear along the West Coast in 2016.
Here are the facts, there were 542 whale entanglements on crab gear within the past 20 years off of the West Coast – only three of the entanglements have been attributed to recreational gear, and it was reported that one of the three was a shrimp pot. Commercial crab boats take up to 98 percent of the available crab, and two medium-sized permit boats off Half Moon Bay will take more crab than all of the sportboats combined. Based upon this information, it seems unfair at the least to restrict the recreational crab fishery based upon the unintended consequences of the commercial fishery.
A delay of the 2021 recreational crab fishery would have a major economic impact on the harbors of Monterey, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco Bay, and Bodega Bay – the main locations for the combination trips that are taking out thousands of anglers per week. Recreational anglers contribute heavily to the local economies by purchasing far more items than just the trip alone, keeping many people gainfully employed.
Despite this issue, the sport crab regulations are badly in need of revision as piracy of both crab and crab pots seems to be at an all-time high, leading to dangerous confrontations in the launch ramp parking lots. The ability to drop pots at midnight on the opening day clearly endangers lives due to inexperienced boaters being out setting gear in the dark. These are both issues that the Department of Fish and Wildlife should review as leaving the status quo has the potential for terrible consequences.
Crab combination trips are great fun, and they are one of the best bargains for northern California fishermen. The future of the viability of the trips is in the hands of the California Fish and Game Commission, and it is my hope that this decision will be delayed until further study takes place. The pure joy experienced by my adult stepson on this trip is something that is invaluable.