Out-of-state crabbers depleting resources for Bay Area coast boats

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Posted by on December 12, 2004 at 13:02:44:

An ugly story circulating on the San Francisco waterfront that details the wanton waste of 25,000 Dungeness crabs by out-of-state crabbers was confirmed by an eye witness with a stunning video last week with the California Fish and Game Commission.

In the video, an unknown captain and deckhands are shown with dead crabs piled up in their boat, while live crabs were separated out and sold. The deckhands then placed the dead crabs in rubber garbage cans -- and then, according to the witness, the boat headed out to sea where the crabs allegedly were dumped.

"Someone called me up from the wharf and said, 'Hey, if you want to document the waste, you better get your butt down here right now because it's going on,' " said Larry Collins of San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, which supports small-scale sustainable harvest by local fishermen. "So I went down there and we videotaped it. There were tens of thousands of pounds of crabs. They're dead and they stunk."

Collins said he filmed the operation for about an hour. There are at least two other witnesses.

"The whole time this is going on, I'm calling Fish and Game, I'm calling CalTip (the toll-free hot line), and I say, 'Get a warden down here, this is wanton waste,' " Collins said. "Nobody comes."

By the time a game warden did arrive that afternoon, the boat was gone.

According to Fish and Game law, an officer must witness a violation to prosecute it. The fine, and perhaps jail time, could have been gigantic. A sport fisherman typically is fined about $650 for each crab over the sport limit, for instance. Using the same formula, the fine for 25,000 crabs would be $16.25 million.

This story has raised tensions at Fisherman's Wharf, Half Moon Bay and Bodega Bay between local crabbers, buyers and the out-of-state crabbers who bring their boats down to cash in on the Bay Area coast's early season. Most local crabbers run 35- to 50-foot boats, set about 200 pots and can hold 3,000 pounds of live crabs.

The out-of-town boats are more often 70- to 90-footers, set 750 to 1,000 pots, and can hold 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of crabs. After opening week along the Bay Area before Thanksgiving, they head back to points north for the later openers in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska.

"What you've got is the WalMart-ization of the seafood industry," Collins said. "The Bay Area crab resource is getting raped by out-of-towners. We've got to stop these big boats from coming in and devastating the resource."

The best way to do that would be to put a 250-pot limit on all boats, according to the Crab Boat Owners Association. That would level the playing field -- and make sure the giant boats with 1,000 pots won't catch thousands of crabs only to have them die and then later be discarded.

No out-of-town crabber would talk on the record regarding this story. But at Fisherman's Wharf, a deckhand on one of the alleged killer boats said that when they came in to offload their catch, they were rebuffed by the buyer who said they were overloaded by volume. So that is why their catch died and had to be dumped.

The Fish and Game Commission was upset by the video showing the waste, and may order another hearing on the issue. They also could make a recommendation to the Legislature or Department of Fish and Game, which sets law governing commercial fishing.

Meanwhile, as the story circulates, Bay Area environmental interests are joining with local crabbers in a unique matrix.

"There'll be less to catch later in the season so consumers will suffer," said John McManus of Earth Justice. "Sport fishermen who fish crab will also have less to catch."

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