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Change pinches commercial crabbers

Brian Allison, president of the Puget Sound Crab Association, hauls a garbage can filled with crab to a buyer at the boat ramp at Oak Harbor Marina. Allison is worried about new rules concerning the allocation of crab and the ratio that will go to recreational crabbers. - Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times
Brian Allison, president of the Puget Sound Crab Association, hauls a garbage can filled with crab to a buyer at the boat ramp at Oak Harbor Marina. Allison is worried about new rules concerning the allocation of crab and the ratio that will go to recreational crabbers.
— image credit: Justin Burnett/Whidbey News-Times

New rules that shift the balance of Puget Sound’s annual crab take toward recreational fisherman have many in the commercial industry scratching their heads and wondering if by this time next year the only thing they will be fishing for is a new job.

“It’s a very big deal,” said Brian Allison, an Oak Harbor resident and president of the Puget Sound Crab Association. “It’s basically the difference between a viable commercial industry and one that’s not.”

Yet those representing recreational interests see the change in a different light. They chalk up the new rules as not only a big win for the people of Washington, but one that is long overdue.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Bryan Irwin, executive director for the Coastal Conservation Association’s northwest region. “Arguably, it doesn’t go far enough to give recreational fisherman their fair share but it was the best of the options and we are pleased with the decision.”

On Oct. 1, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission approved policy changes that will eliminate current catch quotas for recreational crabbers and replace them with a fixed season that will run five days a week, from July to Labor Day, and seven days a week during the winter months, from October through December. A five-crab-a-day per person limit will be in effect for both seasons.

Miranda Wecker, chair of the nine-member commission, said the rule change has been coming for several years. Commercial fishermen have long received the bulk of the state’s fixed crab quota and a spike in the number of recreational crabbers in recent years made it evident that it was time for a change.

“This is one of the only fisheries in the state where they lion’s share is going to the commercial side,” Wecker said.

“We reached the point where it became a fairness issue,” she said.

Although the vote was just a policy change — the actual fishing regulations need additional approval before they go into effect — many fishermen in Island County are more than a little nervous about the proposal. It’s too soon to know exactly what kind of impact will result, but many believe the changes will drastically dilute the catch ratio for commercial fisherman and drive up prices.

Vinton Waldron, owner of Seabolts Smoke House and vice president of the Puget Sound Crab Association, said the commercial industry claims about 70 percent of a fixed pie, with recreational fisherman taking home about 30 percent. He believes the policy change could result in a reversal of that picture.

“We’re scared to death we’re going to lose our livelihood,” Waldron said.

Of the approximately 250 members in the crab association, about eight fish out of Oak Harbor Marina. But that only accounts for permit holders, not the total number of jobs the industry supports. A low estimate is that four jobs are contingent upon each permit.

“All of our 25 employees depend on this crab,” said Waldron, referring to his restaurant employees.

But Irwin argues that commercial fisherman are swinging a hammer with two sides.

“They’ve created this illusion that only their industry creates jobs,” he said. “It goes both ways.”

Although he couldn’t provide any statistics, Irwin said the numbers of jobs that may be supported recreationally could easily match those in the commercial industry. He also points out that commercial crabbers can fish off the coast while most in the recreational fleet are confined to the calmer waters of Puget Sound. To say that they are now put at an unfair advantage is “ridiculous,” he said.

Officials from Washington Fish and Wildlife have acknowledged an impact on the commercial industry, albeit it’s only a fraction of Waldron’s estimates. Rich Childers, shellfish manager for the department, said in an Oct. 1 news release that the commercial share would decrease just 12 percent under the new policy, from approximately 67 percent to about 55 percent.

Puget Sound’s Dungeness crab is managed under a single quota. Half of the total proportion is reserved for the tribes and the remainder is divvied up between commercial and recreational fishermen. The new regulations, if approved, are not expected to affect tribal fisheries.

But along with concerns about the viability of the commercial industry, many who fish for a living say the changes are deeply flawed. For one, they argue that the rule’s underlying intent to more fairly distribute a state resource is nonsense.

According to Allison, the recreational “fleet” only makes up about 2 percent of the state’s total population. Whether it’s a lack of interest, resources, or time, he couldn’t say, but Allison did claim that the commercial industry fills the gap for the other 98 percent of the population.

“We’re the avenue for them to get Puget Sound crab,” he said.

Wecker argues that department statistics suggest the percentage of crab harvested each year that goes to market will decrease very little, from about 94 percent to just 91 percent. And a large proportion of that, she claims, goes to foreign or out-of-state markets and not the refrigerators or freezers of Washington residents.

“It’s just not right to suggest this particular shift will impact at all domestic sales,” she said.

But the rule change is confusing for other reasons as well, particularly concerning the high rate of noncompliance among recreational crabbers, Allison said. According to a January 15 performance audit by the state Auditor’s Office, of the face-to-face contacts Fish and Wildlife enforcement officers made in the 2007-2008 season, 45 percent had not recorded their harvest on their catch record card.

“Wecker acknowledged that compliance among recreational crabbers is an issue, but disputes the audit’s findings as being exaggerated. The statistic is based largely on recording issues and not illegal harvesting, she said. She also claimed that the rate of noncompliance has decreased since the audit data was compiled, although she was unable to give another percentage.

“We wouldn’t want to punish an entire group for the actions of a minority,” she said.

The commission is planning to seek legislative approval to increase crab endorsement fees, from $3 to $7.50, to help pay for more vigilant enforcement strategies. According to Wecker, the additional revenues could be used to hire more enforcement officers or increase the number of patrols of existing officers. The commission is also looking at reviewing the impact of the changes sometime next year, she said.

Public hearings on the actual fishing regulations are scheduled for December with a final consideration in February. Allison and Waldron confirmed that the association has consulted an attorney and is preparing to argue the issue in court.

“We’re not going down without a fight,” Waldron said.

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