Bad news for Tacoma and Olympia crabbers: Marine Areas 11 and 13 won’t open for Dungeness — or even red rocks — this summer.
Dungie numbers have crashed in recent years and state managers say the idea behind the full closure is to try and rebuild the populations.
Tribal commercial fisheries will also not open.
It’s unclear why the crabs are not doing well, but a recent presentation to the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission pointed to three possibilities: excessive harvest, poor water conditions, and distance larva must ride currents to here from primary breeding areas.
That PDF also shows how bad it is.
Graphs in it show state and tribal crab harvest in Area 11, off Tacoma, peaked in 2014 at about 225,000 pounds, produced 200,000 in 2015, then dropped like a rock to 50,000 in 2016 and half that last year.
Similarly, Area 13, deep South Sound, peaked in 2012 at 300,000 pounds, but zipped downhill like a ski jumper to an almost negligible amount last year, 9,462 pounds, or one-tenth of one percent of all that were harvested in Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Test fishing earlier this year found one legal Dungie a pot in Area 11 and maybe a quarter of one in 13.
On the flip side, those graphs also reveal the extreme spike in harvest, tripling and even quadrupling from the 100,000- and 50,000-pound ranges of the last decade.
A rather frightening graph WDFW also put together shows that two entire back-to-back year-classes of crabs are “missing, not detected.”
Those would be year 2 and year 3 Dungies.
Year 4 crabs — which would be legals in summer 2019 — are also said to be “greatly reduced.”
That means we may be in for a few years of rebuilding the stock.
“It is a very sad day when a family activity such as Puget Sound crabbing is shut down due to very foreseeable and predictable mismanagement,” said Puyallup shellfisherman and Northwest Sportsman contributor Jason Brooks. “Overharvest by other user groups and a lack of enforcement, along with winter and summer seasons, and it’s pretty apparent the crab numbers will dwindle.”
The last winter recreational season in Areas 11 and 13 occurred in 2015
Last year, as it became blindingly obvious there were very few Dungeness and even red rocks around the South Sound, crabber ire turned towards tribal fishermen who were said to have put out huge numbers of pots in recent years, perhaps a sign they were also having trouble finding legals.
Another theory revolves around The Blob years, 2014-15, and how high water temperatures as well as low dissolved oxygen levels could have negatively affected juvenile crabs.
The book The Highest Tide aside, because of the inland sea’s shape, the Tacoma Narrows restricts the flow of saltwater that might otherwise carry larval crabs into the South Sound. But it’s been like that since the end of the last ice age too.
Whatever the cause, it’s all leading state shellfish managers to take another look at how they manage crabs in South Sound.
Currently, it’s done with the 3-S model — restricting harvest by size, sex and season.
“The 3-S model of management was developed for open systems, such as coastal waters, where the effects of harvest are mitigated by regular larval production and recruitment,” says the WDFW presentation. “A confined system like South Puget Sound may need to incorporate a 4th metric, larval production and juvenile recruitment.”
“Shellfish populations become stressed when critically low density levels are reached, and reproductive success is greatly diminished,” it continues. “This is known as an Allee Effect. For Dungeness crab extremely low density could affect successful mating.”
WDFW had also considered just barring Dungie retention or reducing limits and seasons. It said that some recreational crabbers supported closing it down.
Crab seasons for the rest of Puget Sound are expected to be announced later this month after state and tribal managers agree to them. No other similar closures are expected, according to WDFW.
According to the agency, nearly 5.1 million pounds of crabs were harvested in the San Juan Islands last year (and who knows how many more from Canadian poachers), almost 3 million pounds worth in Areas 8-1, 8-2 and 9 alongside Whidbey and Camano Islands, and 864,000 pounds in Area 6, the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca.