OLYMPIA – Responding to growing pressures on Dungeness crab stocks, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) will employ several new strategies to protect the resource when recreational crab seasons open later this spring.
For one thing, crabbers who do not carry and maintain their catch record cards when they are out fishing will risk getting a citation. Last year, WDFW enforcement officers generally issued warnings to help educate fishers about the new catch- reporting system.
For another, all types of crab fishing – not just pot fishing – will be closed during molting season this year. Ring gear and star traps, as well as wade and dive fishing, will no longer be allowed during times when significant portions of the crab population are in soft-shell condition.
In addition, the agency may expand the quota system first applied last year in Hood Canal to other areas of Puget Sound, although that plan is still under discussion.
WDFW Director Jeff Koenings said the primary reason for these changes in fishery management is the rapid growth in crab landings over the past five years, which were twice as high as average landings during the previous 15 years.
"Dungeness crab stocks are still generally healthy and we want to keep them that way," Koenings said. "To do that, we can't afford to ignore the tremendous increase in fishing pressure over the past few years. At a minimum, we need to make sure we have the best possible estimates of the catch and that crab aren't being killed inadvertently when they are in their most fragile state."
Lisa Veneroso, WDFW policy lead for shellfish issues, said last year's record catch of an estimated 7.7 million pounds was the result of increased landings in every area of Puget Sound and in every sector of the fishery – recreational, commercial and tribal. Recreational fishers exceeded their share of the catch, even though the season was closed in many areas after just three and a half months. That came as a shock to crabbers, who were used to fishing year-round in some areas.
"People were frustrated with the early closures last year, and I don't blame them," Veneroso said. "We need to find new ways to conduct these fisheries that work better for both people and the future of the resource."
With that in mind, WDFW has scheduled a series of public meetings throughout the Puget Sound area in April and May to discuss the 2001 crab and shrimp season – and new ways to manage the fishery. Anyone who wants to know more about the department's plans – or has ideas of their own they want to share – can attend public meetings at the following locations.
For Hood Canal fisheries:
- Shoreline: April 18, 7-9 p.m., at Shoreline Community College, Room 1515
- Silverdale: April 19, 7-9 p.m., in the Central Kitsap High School Auditorium
- Chimicum: April 23, 7-9 p.m., in the Chimicum High School Auditorium
- Shelton: April 24, 7-9 p.m., in the Shelton High School Auditorium
For north Puget Sound fisheries:
- Mount Vernon: April 26, 7-9 p.m., at the Public Utility District No. 1 Office (take College Way exit off I-5, turn left onto Freeway Drive go one-quarter mile).
- Mill Creek: May 2, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Mill Creek WDFW Regional Office, 16018 Mill Creek Blvd.
Veneroso said WDFW has already received a number of proposals designed to keep seasons open longer by adopting smaller daily bag limits, fewer fishing days per week and other means. Others have contacted the agency to complain about last year's abbreviated season and about WDFW's traditional method of estimating the catch, which relies on voluntary catch reporting and periodic counts of fishing buoys in the water.
That issue could be resolved, Veneroso said, if recreational crabbers would just use the new catch card reporting system mandated by the state Legislature and instituted by WDFW last year. The problem last year, she said, was that so few crabbers carried and maintained their catch cards that the data gathered from the new reporting system wasn't useable for making management decisions.
"We are eager to move to the new catch reporting system, but we can't do that if people don't fill out the cards," Veneroso said. "People complain that the old system inflated recreational catch estimates, but we won't know that until fishers do their part in making the new system work."
Veneroso is reminding crab fishers that April 30 is the deadline for returning their "2000 Sportfish Catch Record" cards. Even those who did not fish for crab – or fished and caught nothing – are required to return the cards. Crabbers are asked to fill out all information requested on the cards – including codes for marine areas, gear type and the number of crab kept – otherwise the cards must be invalidated.
Like the new catch reporting system, a ban on all types of crab gear and fishing methods during the molting season is long overdue, said Jay Odell, WDFW policy coordinator for shellfish issues.
Odell said studies have shown that handling is a key factor in soft-shell crab catch mortality – regardless of what kind of gear is used to catch them. Ring nets may actually be harder on molting crab than pot gear because legs and claws often become entangled in the soft webbing and can easily be damaged during handling, he said. Wade and dive fisheries also involve a significant amount of handling, he said.
"Just because a crab is alive when you turn it loose doesn't mean it will survive," said Odell, citing studies that indicate mortality rates as high as 42 percent for crab that have lost a leg or a claw. "People may not realize this, but crab can literally bleed to death from even a small injury."
Another problem, he said, is that data collected by WDFW enforcement staff during the molting season in Puget Sound last year show that nearly half of all the legal-size crab retained by crabbers were soft shelled and illegal to possess.
"At a time of mounting pressure on the resource, it only makes sense to protect crab when they are most vulnerable," Odell said.
Odell noted that heightened sensitivity to molting periods also has made it more difficult to set fixed dates for crab openings. In the past, Odell explained, WDFW generally assumed the molt took place from mid-April through mid-July throughout Puget Sound and set seasons accordingly.
However, surveys conducted in recent years have shown that the molt period can vary significantly from one area of the Sound to another – and from year to year – complicating the season-setting process. As a result, all crab closures this year will be announced on an "emergency" basis, rather than conform to fixed dates.
"We know the lack of fixed dates for area openings can be confusing for people," Koenings said. "But given what good science is telling us, we can't abandon that knowledge in favor of managing by past priorities. In a few years – when we understand these patterns better – we hope to be able to publish opening dates for each area in the rules pamphlet. In the meantime, we have some ideas about how to describe area openings in the pamphlet that should help reduce the confusion."
For now, crabbers can expect the first opening of the season in Area 8-2 (including Port Gardner and Port Susan) sometime between mid-April and early May, Odell said. Area 8-1, including Skagit Bay and most of Saratoga Passage, will likely open in late May. The San Juan Island portion of Area 7 and Area 12 (Hood Canal) will likely open in early June.
Final word on opening dates for each area will be announced to the news media and available via WDFW's Shellfish Hotline (360-796-3215) and the department's website (http://wdfw.wa.gov)
"We'll definitely get the word out as these seasons draw near," Odell said.
One way to maximize fishing opportunities for everyone during those seasons – and meet the resource conservation goals – is to establish annual quotas for all fisheries in a given area, Veneroso said. That way, all sectors of the fishery – recreational, commercial and tribal – will know what their share of the catch is before the season gets under way, she said.
"With biologically determined harvest quotas, people can help determine how to structure seasons that make the most sense for them and the resource," Veneroso said. "That's something we plan to talk to people about at the upcoming public meetings."
"Our constituents are very important players in setting seasons that work for them within the parameters of a harvest quote," Koenings said. "Quotas have limited use unless people have access to the resource."