Photo courtesy of Chief Petty Officer Jeremiah Wolf
LONG BEACH, Wash. — Commercial crabbing ground to halt last week after high winds and huge seas forced crabbers to pull their gear and wait out the bad weather.
Winds exceeded 77 mph Tuesday morning, according to a gauge at Radar Ridge near Naselle, and 81 mph gusts blasted near Cape Disappointment Thursday.
This was the first time in several years that the commercial Dungeness crab season had actually started on the traditional Dec. 1 start date. Last year, crabbers didn’t get out on the water until mid-December. In both 2013 and 2012, state testing indicated the crab just wasn’t big enough.
But this year was a different story.
“The crab looked just beautiful,” said Dan Ayres of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“I think maybe early on there were some fishermen who really weren’t quite ready,” he said. “Some guys had kind of gotten used to having more time in early December to get prepared. ... There was a lot of rushing around at the last minute.”
Even despite reports of a drop off in landings recently and with rough weather on the way, “This is some of the fullest crab we’ve seen for this time of year,” said Hugh Link, executive director of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, an industry-funded agency that is part of the Oregon Department of Agricultures Commodity Commission Program.
Fishermen negotiated a price per pound of $3.10 in November.
“That was pretty much to get gear in the water,” Link said. Now, crab meat is fetching prices of close to $3.50 per pound.
Though it’s still a little too early to tell (recent landing numbers have yet to come in to WDFW from buyers), Ayers predicts this year will be similar to last year, which saw a total of 9.4 million pounds landed in Washington.
The commercial crab fishery tends to be cyclical. According to numbers collected by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, data going back to 1950 reveals large fluctuations in harvest of Washington’s coastal Dungeness crab. In 1981, the catch totaled approximately 2.5 million pounds but rose to 25 million pounds during the 2004-2005 season. These large fluctuations are likely due to a number of environmental variables including water temperature, the availability of food and ocean currents.
But that’s how it goes, Ayres said. “When they’re strong, they can be really strong.”
The last 10 years have averaged high numbers, about 19 million pounds per year, Link pointed out. He believes the industry is about to see another low period, and Ayers agrees.
The Quinault tribe has been fishing north of Westport since mid-November, Ayres said and their landing numbers have come back similar to last year.
“It goes up, it goes down,” Link said. “That’s the nature of the fishery.”
Boats in trouble
This year has also seen several close calls and accidents among the Oregon and Washington crabbing fleets.
Earlier this month, the Coast Guard rescued five fishermen from a sinking vessel after the 78-foot-long boat ran aground near A-Jetty below Cape Disappointment. The Warrenton-based vessel Titan was carrying 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of Dungeness crab at the time.
“It sank a day or two ago and settled on the bottom,” said U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer David Mosley in an interview Dec. 9. The contractor hired by the owner to salvage the vessel tried to move it Dec. 7, but then the winds kicked up and the vessel had to be left alone until the weather improved.
No one from the Titan was injured when it grounded early in the morning Friday, Dec. 5.
Watchstanders at Coast Guard Sector Columbia River received a distress call at 2:16 a.m. from the crew. The fishermen said they were grounded and taking on water. A motor life boat crew was sent out from Cape Disappointment and an MH-60 Jayhawk crew came from Air Station Astoria in Oregon. The Coast Guard crew passed a dewatering pump to the fishermen, but they were unable to keep up with the flooding and had to abandon the vessel.
The Titan was carrying 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel at the time of the incident. The Coast Guard does not know how much fuel leaked into the water, but reported that the area smelled like diesel and there was a visible sheen on the water. Watching the attempted salvage operation Dec. 9, retired Pacific County Commissioner Bud Cuffel said he didn’t see any signs of a fuel leak.
The boat’s owner contracted with Global Diving and Salvage to clean up the fuel and conduct salvage operations. The company did not respond to a request for comments.
The Coast Guard is still investigating the incident.
Earlier, on Nov. 28, motor lifeboat crews from the Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment helped three people after their boat began to take on water 3 miles west of the Columbia River entrance.