Coastal Crab Gear
September 1, 2019
As most of us know, commercial crabbing can be a dangerous business. Not just because of the risk of drowning and hypothermia, but also due to the danger of injury from working with heavy gear and equipment.
Fortunately, a handful of companies have introduced gear and equipment that can make a commercial crabber's job at least a little less stressful.
One example is Eureka, California-based Custom crab Pots, where company CEO Seth Griggs has literally tried to reinvent the wheel. Or to be more accurate, he's reinvented the wheel-shaped crabbing pot commonly used on the West Coast and in Southeast Alaska by turning it into a square.
Griggs, who grew up in the fishing industry, said that the concept of a square pot was something he'd always been curious about.
"As a young kid, the topic would always come up about square pots. Pretty much if you talked to anybody up and down the West Coast and you said 'square pot,' they'd tell you almost in the same breath (that) it doesn't work," he told Fishermen's News. "And I decided for myself that I wanted to see; I wanted to know for a fact that it did or did not work."
After manufacturing a handful of square pots in 2016, he started informing customers that fall of the devices and said that they worked. One thing that made a difference, he said, is putting tunnels in corners instead of the flat side of the pot.
Griggs said that after an 80-year history of non-working square pots in the commercial fishing industry, his company was the first manufacturer to bring square pots to market.
Among the advantages of the devices, he said, are that the pots can be stacked on their sides and won't roll around. Also, although the cost of the square pots is higher, it's offset by the larger amount of space to hold crabs.
"The benefit of a square is that you have about 20 percent more volume over a round pot," he said. "Adding 20 percent (each) to a fleet of 500 pots is huge."
"We've steadily been making more square pots as each season goes by," Griggs said. "I think at this point, we've made a few thousand of them that are in the hands of fishermen all over the place. They're as far north as Southeast Alaska and as south as San Francisco, Moro Bay, Monterrey."
Another company that has introduced new technology to the commercial crabbing market over the past couple of years is Newport, Oregon-based TrapMaster. The TrapMaster device, which is the brainchild of Capt. John Smith, was built with five primary functions, the main of which is to launch pots into the water based on GPS; a buzzer lets the crew know when to release traps.
"It puts the distance between your crab pots in feet based on GPS; there's a loud buzzer that tells the crew when to dump the pots," he explained.
Other functions include a trap counter that tallies the traps as they're being run in a string.
"So each pot is counted as it's being run," Smith said.
The TrapMaster also counts each caught crab using an infrared beam. There's a function on the console that the operator can use to scroll between the total and average number of crabs caught, Smith said, which helps determine whether a string should be left in place or picked up and moved.
Additionally, the TrapMaster can measure the wire or rope going off the winches in fathoms via a digital read-out on each winch for the crew, and can send that information to the main console in the wheelhouse.
Smith said he came up idea for the product while fishing in San Francisco a few years ago, where crab buyers are seeking very accurate crab counts, but crewmembers, being only human, weren't able to do it after 30-40 hours on deck.
"The crew were having a hard time counting the crab, I couldn't count the pots, we were having a hard time launching the pots," he explained. "So I thought that there had to be something better."
Smith came up with a prototype device seven years ago and put the finished device on half a dozen boats in 2017. It's now on dozens of boats from Alaska to San Diego, he said, adding that he hopes to sell at least 100 of the devices in 2019.
"There are no (other) products on the market that do this," he said. 'It's a unique product."
Another product that's been on the market for a while, but is now gaining in popularity is Longsoaker. The device, which has been around for about five years, is a unique timed-release bait container that keeps fresh bait dry at depth and then automatically releases.
"It's made a really huge difference for many guys, both on the West Coast and as far away as Tasmania," said Russ Mullins, head of Ferndale, Washington-based Longsoaker Fishing Systems.
"The very unique thing about the Longsoaker is that it keeps the bait dry – it's not being soaked until it releases," he said.
Mullins says there are a few other similar contraptions out there, but they're cumbersome to open. "From a practical standpoint, there's no other product like the Longsoaker out there," he says.
Mullins said that although the product has been on the market since 2014, it gets more popular as time goes along.
"As word gets out and people get comfortable with something new, it really has caught on, he said. "It's becoming a full-time job to make sure that we meet the need, especially during the busy coastal seasons."
Mullins came up with the idea about six years ago and patented it.
"It was kind of a leap of faith; I knew that it would work because fresh bait always catches more of whatever. It's just a matter of working it into a given operation, that's typically the challenge," he said. "More and more people – especially in the coastal crab fishery in Puget Sound – are very interested."
Mullins also said he's currently working on a prototype of ropeless gear technology to deal with whale entanglement issues and that he expects to have a demo made by September.
Whale entanglements have been one of two big issues facing West Coast crab fishermen in recent years, along with domoic acid in the ocean.
Those two issues have brought a lot of uncertainty to the industry according to some, particularly the problem of acidic ocean water, because it can result in a delay of the opening of the crabbing season, which traditionally begins Dec. 1.
Northern California crab fishermen Tony Sepulveda and Stephen Melz told Fishermen's News that both issues are likely to have wide-reaching effects on the industry.
"It has a huge impact when the season doesn't open on time," Sepulveda said. "It makes it hard for a lot of families to pay their mortgages and make ends meet, because there's nothing else to do, you're basically stuck in a holding pattern."
Melz, who's been a commercial fisherman since 1986, said that the issue of whale entanglements – including a three-year spike in whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear from 2014 to 2017 – has died down somewhat. In 2018, only seven out of about 150,000 crab pots fished resulted in an entanglement in California Dungeness crab fishing gear, according to NOAA Fisheries, down from 50 fishing gear entanglements in 2015.
Harvey Ives, the owner of Bellingham, Washington-based Trilogy Crabpots, said that any delay to the season, in addition to harming fishermen economically, can result in fewer crab catches due to older crabs not needing to venture out to feed as often.
"When the season gets held off it really makes it hard to catch Mr. crab. It makes a lot of difference," Ives said. "When they get hard shell – completely full – they don't bite as frequently. They don't need to forage on a daily basis. When the season has normally opened in the past, those crabs are a little bit light and they're still foraging every day."
As far as the upcoming crab fishery, everyone interviewed by Fishermen's News said that it's hard to predict what the season holds, or if it will begin on time.
"It's a minute to minute thing. We might not know until November what the crabs look like," Sepulveda said. "It's a cycle that goes up and down; there are big years and then there are lean years and everything in between."
"I don't think we can determine that at this point in time, it's way too soon," Ives added.
"I think that the hope among the fleet is that we will have a really good upcoming season. Most of the crab that we were catching last year, we had to throw back because they were just about an eighth of an inch under, which is just one year's molt," he explained. "So guys are very excited about what's coming."