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One Man's Opinion: In the Dungeness 'derby,' quantity overides quality
January 01, 2005
Fisheries managers in the United States have made great strides over the past decade to eliminate “derby-style” fisheries characterized by too many boats racing to catch too few fish.
The best examples of commercial fishing made safer, saner and more profitable are on the West Coast. Take halibut — since the fishery was converted to an individual quota system in 1995, Pacific halibut catches have increased by more than 60 percent, and the value of fish at the dock has jumped by almost 50 percent.
Alaska pollock is another case in which IQs and slower fishing have allowed processors to increase both yields and quality, putting more profits on their bottom line.
Alaska’s snow and king crab fisheries are the latest to be brought under an IQ system. This January’s snow crab fishery will be the last fishery to be managed under the derby-style quota system.
Now it’s time for fisheries managers on the West Coast from California to Washington to put their thinking caps on and try to fix the ocean Dungeness crab fishery. It’s not that the resource is in bad shape — at least for now. Last year, U.S. crabbers landed a record 83 million pounds of Dungeness, double Alaska’s combined catch of snow and king crab.
The problem is that this ocean fishery, which used to last a good four or five months, now lasts about four or five weeks. More and more small and medium-sized local boats are being replaced by big boats that hit Dungeness hard in December.
And the big boats, many of which are fished by hard-charging Alaska fishermen, are all business, working their 500 pots day and night in weather that keeps smaller boats tied to the dock. The incentive to gear up is clearly there. Boats that can land 150,000 pounds of crab can generate $225,000 in gross revenue — not bad for a month’s work.
The result is a huge slug of crab that hits the docks in December, overwhelming processors who have to truck crab far and wide in a search for both markets and additional places to process crab. The glut also forces prices down, as processors race to unload mounting piles of crab in order to pay fishermen.
“Margins have shrunk,” says one California processor. “The only way you can make any money is to do a huge volume, and that means quality takes a back seat to quantity.”
This year, crabs in some areas have been slow to fill out, making matters worse. When fishing was slower, fishermen would sort out light crab, but that’s not the case anymore. There’s no time, and that causes another headache for processors, as some buyers take advantage of the opportunity and claim their crab is “light,” whether it is or not.
The recent buyback of the West Coast groundfish fleet has also put added pressure on the Dungeness fishery. Some fishermen have taken cash from selling their groundfish boats and geared up for Dungeness in a big way.
What’s the answer? Lower pot limits? Individual quotas? Trip limits? Vessel buybacks?
The answer may not be easy, but surely there's a better way to run this fishery. Now is the time to figure it out.