Federal decision allots tribe 50 percent of Dungeness crabA complex negotiation between Washington fisheries managers and a coastal Native American tribe will delay the start of the commercial Dungeness crab season for fishers in northern Oregon and Washington by 10 days.
Crab fishers, who look forward to the traditional Dec. 1 start date of the season after the slow fishing and bad weather of November, may feel some financial pinch because of the delay. But crab consumers are not likely to notice any difference in the supply of crab - especially with a large surplus reported in the Central California fishery.
Every year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife negotiates fishing rules with coastal Native American tribes.
The Quinault tribe, whose fishing grounds are off the coast of northern Grays Harbor County, is entitled to 50 percent of the Dungeness crab harvest, by federal court decision.
Dan Ayres, WDFW's lead biologist for the coastal shellfish unit, said the tribe is cognizant that it doesn't have the fishing power to catch its share of the crab. Typically, the Quinaults put about nine boats to sea, he said.
"Their goal is to gain as much parity as they can," he said. To accomplish this, the tribe's fishers are given a head start over non-Indian fishers. The size of the head start is negotiated by WDFW and the Quinaults each year.
"They are truly co-managers in this fishery," Ayres said. "We have to come to an agreement."
The Quinaults have asked for incrementally larger head starts as the years have passed. This year, Ayres said, they asked for a 35-day head start. Instead of allowing the gap to continue growing - which WDFW feared would eventually back up the start of non-Indian fishers until too late in the season - the fisheries managers took a different approach: delaying the start of the non-Indian fishers by a negotiated ten days.
Another factor - the quality of the crab - plays into the start date both Indian and non-Indian fishers. The Quinaults began harvesting in early November, Ayres said, when crab shells were still soft and produced a lower percentage of "meat recovery." The Quinaults are able to do this because they are not bound by the same quality standards as non-Indian fishers who do not begin harvesting crab until the shells grow hard enough to yield 23 percent meat recovery.
"If we forced the tribe to adopt the same measure that we're using," Ayres said, "that could back up the whole works even longer."
The 10-day delay is frustrating to some non-Indian crab fishers.
"Of course we're always discouraged when someone is offered special privileges to fish," said Dale Beasley, an Ilwaco, Wash., crab fisher and president of the Columbia River Crab Fishermen's Association. "In my opinion, it goes against the grain of the American Constitution."
Russell Smotherman, who fishes for crab out of Warrenton, said the delay will put fishers 10 days further away from their income at a time of year when things tend to be thin. "November is generally an incomeless month," he said.
Fishers in southern Oregon and California will start their seasons Dec. 1, as usual. The line that separates Oregon and Washington crab fishing grounds, usually drawn at Cascade Head, was moved south this year in response to the delay in Washington. The new line, at Floras Creek, north of Cape Blanco in southern Oregon, is designed to prevent "a boundary war" - the fear being that Washington crab fishers would shift their fishing efforts to Oregon waters to escape the delay in their home state.
"It behooved Oregon to have a similar delay, at least closer to the state line," said Matt Hunter, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife North Coast shellfish biologist.
The split start to the crab fishing season could actually make it easier for crab fishers in northern Oregon and Washington to negotiate prices with processors, said Smotherman, who is president of the Pacific Northwest Dungeness Crab Marketing Association.
Fishers in southern Oregon and California will have already negotiated price with processors by the time fishers here begin their season.
"It's going to be very easy for us this year," he said, "because it should be settled and it should be established by the time we get started."