Pandemic, new rules handcuff Central Coast crab fishermen

By Cypress Hansen, Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ — You couldn’t blame crab fishermen Tim and Dan Obert for feeling like they’re passing through the perfect storm.

First there was the pandemic, which shut down restaurants and, in turn, much of the demand for Dungeness crab. Then a new regulation took effect on Nov. 1 that heavily restricts the Dungeness fishery’s operations when whales and sea turtles are around. Then the state delayed the opening of the Dungeness crab season until after Thanksgiving.

“If you take all three of those things, you will destroy this fishery,” said Tim Obert, 35, of Scotts Valley. “There will be no crabbers left.”

Dungeness crab in Northern California is an integral and celebrated part of the culture of coastal communities stretching from Monterey to Crescent City. Wharf restaurants sling crab legs to thousands of tourists in the spring and summer, while bustling seafood markets feed countless locals during the holiday season.

For fishermen who sell fresh crab when the fishery is open November through June, Thanksgiving and Christmas are the biggest moneymakers. Some fishers say 70% of their yearly income is earned in the first couple of months of the season.

“The Dungeness market drops off big time after Christmas and New Year’s,” said Jeff Bradford, the meat manager at Shopper’s Corner in Santa Cruz. Once the crabs begin to molt in March, he said, “we just quit buying it.” And most crabbers move on to catching fish such as salmon, black cod and rockfish, which tides them over until the next crab season.

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“Crab is the most lucrative, most profitable fishery we have,” said Obert, who explained that he and his twin brother, Dan, sell their catch to grocers, who freeze and sell the product all year long.

But Tim Obert’s sentiment may not ring as true this year, largely because the pandemic reduced the offseason demand for crab. When the global shutdown began, restaurants were shuttered, parties canceled and much of the frozen crab that’s sold year-round never left the freezers. The backlog of unsold crustaceans means the fishers won’t be getting top dollar for their catch from fishmongers, who ultimately set the market price.

“I think we’re gonna see a really depressed market pricewise,’’ said fisherman Khevin Mellegers, 47, whose boat is docked in the Santa Cruz harbor. “That’s kind of the rumor on the street.”

But he’s more worried about continued delays and fishery closures ordered by the state. “You can’t make money if you can’t go to work,” said Mellegers, a Felton resident.

On Nov. 4, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that the start of the Central Coast commercial crab season was being postponed from Nov. 15 to Dec. 1. The delay was called because aerial and vessel-based surveys done on Oct. 29 estimated there were 345 whales in the area. Under new regulations, sightings of more than 20 whales or just one leatherback sea turtle per fishing zone trigger immediate action by the state.

Dan and Tim Obert’s Stacey Jo is one of many crab boats still …read more

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Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment


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