TUMWATER - Sport crabbers will be able to fish anywhere in Puget Sound through the Labor Day weekend - with the prospect of additional fishing time during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays - under new crab-fishing rules for this year adopted Saturday (May 14) by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission.
At the same time, the commission voted to reduce the daily bag limit from six to five Dungeness crab in all areas of Puget Sound, and limit fishing in some areas with the highest effort to four days per week.
Those highly fished areas will close the evening of Sept. 5 for a catch assessment, which could allow for additional openings later in the year.
Commission Chair Ron Ozment said the new rules are designed to extend the length of this year's recreational fishery while holding the sport catch within approved limits.
According to catch estimates by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the sport fishery has exceeded its harvest share in each of the past five years, reducing the amount of crab available for harvest by commercial fisheries.
"With sport crabbing growing in popularity year after year, the commission agreed some changes were needed in the fishery," Ozment said. "These new rules are designed to hold the daily catch to a level that can be sustained throughout the summer season - with the possibility of additional openings in fall and winter."
The new fishing rules were adopted in a unanimous vote by the nine-member commission during a public meeting attended by more than 150 people, most of them recreational and commercial crabbers. Under the new rules:
- Marine areas 4 (Neah Bay), 5 (Sekiu) and 13 (south Puget Sound) will open June 18 seven days per week.
- Marine areas 6 (eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca), 7 South (San Juan Islands), 8-1 (Deception Pass to East Point), 8-2 (East Point to Possession Point), 9 (Admiralty Inlet), 10 (Seattle/Bremerton), 11 (Tacoma/Vashion) and 12 (Hood Canal) will open July 1, Wednesday through Saturday, plus the entire Labor Day weekend, before closing the evening of Sept. 5 for a catch assessment.
- Marine Area 7 East (San Juan Islands) will open July 16, Wednesday through Saturday, plus the entire Labor Day weekend, closing for a catch assessment Sept. 30.
- Marine Area 7 North (Sand Juan Islands) will open Aug. 17, Wednesday through Saturday, plus the entire Labor Day weekend, closing for a catch assessment Sept. 30.
With those fishing seasons in place, shellfish managers expect sport crabbers to harvest approximately 70 percent of their allocation in areas that close for assessment, said Lisa Veneroso, WDFW shellfish policy coordinator. The department would then schedule openings in fall and winter for any additional crab remaining in their allocation, she said.
"The closure after the Labor Day weekend will have dual benefits," Veneroso said. "First, it will allow WDFW staff to get a good read on the catch-to-date, helping to prevent the sport fishery from exceeding its allocation. Second, it will tell us which areas we can reopen for fishing in fall and winter, something that many recreational crabbers have requested."
WDFW's method of estimating the sport crab catch drew nearly as many questions from crabbers who spoke at the meeting as the new fishing seasons, themselves.
WDFW Director Jeff Koenings explained that the department is planning to conduct field-based creel checks at specific sites to assess the reliability of telephone surveys of catch-card holders now used to estimate the catch.
"Ensuring the reliability of our catch estimates is a top priority for the department," Koenings said. "I recognize that no system is perfect, but we'll continue to make adjustments as necessary for sound management. To improve public confidence in our catch estimates, we need to make sure those estimates are timely as well as accurate."