The docks of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf were teeming with life; forklifts zipped in every direction, hoists lowered stacks of crab traps onto waiting boats, and fishermen stocked their boats with ice and bait.
“This year’s a go,” said fisherman Rich Fitzpatrick as he leaned on a metal rail taking in the action. “Tomorrow morning we’ll be setting our gear.”
Commercial fishermen heading out for the prized Dungeness crabs are allowed to begin setting their traps at 6 a.m. Thursday morning, and begin hauling in their catch Friday when the season opens.
For years, Fitzpatrick and his fellow local fishermen have fretted over the start of every commercial season, especially when large boats hauling thousands of traps from Oregon and Washington would turn up.
Smaller boat operators complained the larger boats wiped out the crab population soon after the season opened.
But this year, for the first time, California implemented crab pot regulations, limiting the number of traps each boat could use.
“It ends the arms race,” said Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association. "This should slow things down a little bit."
Collins said it took 12 years, and three legislative bills, before the regulations were finally signed by Governor Jerry Brown.
The regulations use a seven-tier system, based on each fisherman’s past catches, to determine how many traps they can set. The cap is 500.
Fitzpatrick said the hope was, by limiting traps, fishermen would be able to crab longer into the season.
“Normally, the crabs are caught by Christmas,” Fitzpatrick said. “So hopefully we’ll just go on with this drop limit, maybe be able to fish another month or two.”
Some larger boat owners said the limits unfairly punished fishermen who had worked hard to buy larger boats and more gear.
“They want to put these restrictions just to get rid of the big guy,” said one boat skipper who spoke on the condition he not be identified. “They’ve done it in the past where they do random strikes just to get rid of the big guys and get them go home. All it is is just a little monopolizing of the local fleet.”
Processors said prices for Dungeness crab this year would likely be higher than last year, though it was unclear whether it was the result of the new regulations.
One processor said crab fishermen negotiated a wholesale price of $3 a pound, which would translate into around $5 a pound for consumers.
Collins said the docks were experiencing a larger-than-normal turnout of fishing boats for the start of the season – which could undo the impact of the reduced number of crab traps.
“You watch the seagulls compete, you watch the sea lions compete,” Collins said. “We all compete, that’s just life.”