Washington State Crab
September 1, 2018
There are two Washington State crab fisheries that are managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW); the Coastal fishery and the Puget Sound fisheries. Both work closely with their counterpart fisheries in Oregon and California.
Along the Pacific coast, Dungeness crab live in the intertidal zone out to a depth of 170 meters. Washington's coastal commercial crab grounds extend from the Columbia River to Cape Flattery near Neah Bay and include the estuary of the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay.
There is no stock assessment work conducted on coastal crab populations. Dungeness crab management on the coast is based on a minimum size limit of 6.25 inches. There is prohibition of harvest of female crab, with season closures taking place during the primary male molt period.
Crabbing season begins in December, and ends in September of each year. The 2018 season started late due to the crab molting process taking longer than expected. "We're not sure why. Sometimes that's an indication that you're going to have a very strong season," says Dan Ayres, Coastal Shellfish Manager for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. "This season has turned out to be a good season, more of a moderate season."
Ayres and his crew take a look at the condition of crab at the start of every season. "That's primarily a market issue not so much a biological issue," he says. "This is an important fishery to each of our states. Economically in Washington, it's the largest commercial fishery that we manage in value of the product that's landed."
Generally, about 75 percent of crab is landed during the first two months of the season. Much of the catch is frozen by processors who will later pull crab out of the freezer during the year, process it and remove the meat, then put it on the market. If crab goes into the freezer in poor condition, the industry will suffer for the entire year.
While the fishery ends on September 15, about 10 percent of crab fishing is carried out during the summer. "We have a fairly aggressive summertime fishery management plan we use to reduce handling mortality in the summer months as some crab begin the molting cycle," says Ayres. "It's kind of a moving target. It's not unusual to have crab molting in the summer months when the season is still open."
Ayres notes that in the summer of 2017, low oxygen conditions on the bottom – a condition called hypoxia – extended further inshore than normal, resulting in significant numbers of dead crab showing up on beaches. While the numbers weren't so high that the crab population was compromised, he says that, in addition to his department, NOAA and University of Washington researchers are keeping an eye on this trend, particularly since the issue surfaced again this year.
Fishermen who fish the coastal region are required to have a license; many of them have more than one state license across Washington, Oregon and California.
The three state fisheries manage the process through a Tri-State Committee which meets annually through the auspices of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Under the Commission there is agreement on procedures for pre-season meat pick-out testing of the crab. The meat recovery criteria help determine if the season should open on December 1st. If the season opening is delayed, the opening day will be announced upon completion of further testing and agreement by the state agencies. In addition, if the season opening is delayed, state agencies take mutually supportive administrative action to establish fishing zones.
While each of the three states use the same protocol for testing crab meat condition and try to open as much area as possible within each state for crabbing, there is no hard and fast way to predict what the season will be like. Hence, there is no quota for the Coastal fishery. Fishermen are allowed to catch as much crab as they want, as long as they're only catching crab of legal size and male crab. "That's the issue of not being able to do stock assessments," says Ayres. "We're relying heavily on this size, sex and season to ensure sustainability. That's been our long-time management practice on the West Coast. All three states manage it the same way."
Dungeness crab is a unique fishery in that there is no direct Federal government involvement. All three states manage fisheries outside state waters, out to approximately 200 miles without Federal oversight. Recently the pre-existing regulations allowed for this under a 10-year sunset clause, but now the three states have been given the all-clear to manage their fisheries as independent entities in perpetuity, via the recent approval of the Dungeness crab Management Act.
The bill, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump, gives permanent authority to Washington, Oregon, and California to adopt and enforce state laws governing fishing and processing in the exclusive economic zone adjacent to their state in any Dungeness crab fishery for which there is no fishery management plan in effect under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
There are, however mandatory weekly trip limits that begin on July 1. "My crew spends a lot of time on commercial crab boats, and if we see more than 50 percent in the beginning stages of a soft-shell condition, we'll impose a more restrictive landing limit to further reduce the fishery," adds Ayres.
Additionally, unlike the Oregon and California fisheries, the Washington Coastal fishery has tribal governments which have treaty rights. In their federally-adjudicated usual and accustomed fishing areas, tribes have the rights to 50 percent of the harvest. Ayres' department meets regularly with three tribes that fish the Washington Coast region.
"Because we are unable to make estimates of the harvestable portion of the population, our State/ Tribal fishery management agreements are more complicated as we can't just say here's the number; and then split it half and half," explains Ayres. "Instead we do our best to work together to manage the fisheries so that by the end of the season, we are as close to a 50/50 harvest sharing as possible."
There are a variety of steps the State and the tribes have to take and come to an agreement on before each season. The tribes typically get a head-start at the front of the season where they get to go to those areas ahead of non-tribal fishers to get a good shot at their 50 percent. Since there are fewer tribal fishers, it takes them longer to do this. Additionally, there are smaller areas that are closed year-round and are reserved exclusively for tribal fishers.
Predicting how the season will play out depends on factors other than crab molting, although Ayres points out that there isn't a fail-proof way to predict the catch. There is an emerging issue that's coming to the fore. Dungeness crab are being contaminated by the naturally-occurring marine toxin Domoic Acid. In 2015, large portions of the Washington coast were closed for crabbing due to this harmful substance that can be transferred to humans. Last season saw Oregon and California dealing with the issue, while the Washington coast was clear. WDFW is working with a team of scientists as well as the Washington Department of Health to develop consistent ways of sampling larges areas of the ocean for the toxin.
Another issue which has surfaced that has implications in all three states, is whales becoming entangled in Dungeness crab gear. "It's an issue that seems to be increasing," says Ayres. "For a long time, primarily it was an issue in California, and particularly this year, we've had a much higher-than-normal incident of whale entanglements with crab gear in Washington. We're working closely with our Federal counterparts at NOAA, other states, the Tribes, and with industry to come up with ways to try to minimize that."
Ayres reiterates that the pre-season testing of crab condition is not designed to be a pre-season abundance test. Work has been done in Oregon looking at crab larvae counts as a general index but he feels it's a long way from being able to be able to predict, with certainty, how the season will unfold.
While the Puget Sound fishery is smaller than the Coastal fishery it boasts a farm-to-market service, with crabbers going out in the morning and delivering catch in the afternoon. Coastal fishery Dungeness crabbers often use larger vessels and may fish anywhere from two to four days, returning with larger loads for processing.
"We can export a lot of these Puget Sound crab to the Asian marketplace," says Don Rothaus, Shellfish Biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Because the crab are more lively, they handle the transport easier and it makes them highly desirable."
Rothaus reports that during the 2017-2018 season, the State commercial fishery in Puget Sound landed nearly 2.9 million pounds of crab. While the State doesn't manage the Tribal fisheries, Tribes landed approximately 4.6 million pounds of crab, most of which was sold commercially.
The price per pound in Washington for State commercial harvesters averages around $4.40, says Rothaus. The ex-vessel state commercial value in 2017/18 was 12.5 million dollars, with Rothaus estimating the State and Tribal combined landed approximately 7.5 million pounds of crab.
The State commercial Puget Sound crab season starts in October, with 30 days of fishing that begin on October 1. The fishery then shuts down during November and opens again in the early-to-mid part of December, with crab fishing continuing throughout the new year.
"Generally, depending on how many pounds are left in the Puget Sound allocation, we will either close and reopen later or keep it open until a hard closure date," explains Rothaus. "And those hard closure dates range from February 15 to March 31, depending on the region."
The Treaty commercial fishery begins is some regions as early as mid-June with short two to five-day openers. As the season progresses, longer openings are scheduled where Treaty quota remains. These fisheries are also subject to the February 15 to March 31 hard closures, again depending on the region.
There are about 132 State commercial fishers in Puget Sound who hold 249 licenses. Some fishers have more than one license which allows them to fish more units of gear when they're out on the water.
Before the season starts, the State and tribes meet and negotiate the regional quotas. The tribes get 50 percent of that and the State gets the other half, which is then halved again between the State commercial fishermen and recreational crabbers.
"Our fishers don't have an individual quota system but we have multiple regional quotas within Puget Sound, and we manage to those regional quotas," says Rothaus. The State and tribes co-manage seven different regions. Federal government regulations ensure that both groups equally share the resources within each of these management areas.
Quotas are set based on historic data and fishery performance along with some guiding pre-season test fishing data. "We use three-year averages to get us in the ballpark of where we might set a regional quota," says Rothaus. "If we're in a gangbuster year, we'll do an allocation increase to increase the quota based on the fishery performance in the first part of the fishery." Rothaus' team meets with treaty biologists to see how the season is progressing and collaborates with the tribes as part of this process.
The Puget Sound crab fishery has generally been enjoying an upward trend over the last 10 years, however it has had some peaks and valleys in landings during that period. One issue that has caused concern is warm water events that have occurred off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California in recent years. Higher water temperatures have been shown to increase mortality in Dungeness crab larvae.
"There is some conjecture that some of those warm water events from a few years ago may be partially responsible for the downtick in our performance the last couple of years," says Rothaus. "I think more recently, we've seen more normal water temperature conditions, so it would not surprise me to see this downward trend turn around over the next couple of years based on a return to more typical Puget Sound water temperatures."