"Closure puts pinch on commercial, sport crabbing"

"No local crab for Christmas. And possibly no crab for Easter, either.The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife imposed an emergency crabbing closure on the east side of Whidbey Island on Dec. 22, from Everett to Oak Harbor. The closure covers all non-tribal crabbing, including recreational and commercial boats.Members of the Swinomish tribe are continuing to crab in the waters around Oak Harbor.Fish and Wildlife officer Norm Lemberg, who works out of the department’s La Conner office, admits it wasn’t a very popular decision.“The group that likes to go out and get crab for Christmas was pretty hot,” he said.What’s more, the closure is likely to stay in effect until mid April, and maybe later depending on the molting period of local crabs.Lemberg calls it a “fact of life” of Puget Sound crabbing in the 21st century. With Puget Sound Indian tribes entitled to a full 50 percent of the crab fishery, it’s the state’s job to make sure commercial and recreational boats take no more than half of the annual harvest.And while recreational crabbers might be bothered by the closure — it was the second straight year there was a Christmas crabbing shutdown in local waters — commercial crabbers on Puget Sound are worried their livelihood is in danger.“Guys are just hanging on,” said Chris Fenton, a commercial crabber out of Anacortes who works the waters around Whidbey Island. “For the past 10 year’s I’ve just been dodging bullets.”Fenton notes that the tribes have gotten into crabbing in a big way in the last few years, ever since the courts upheld their right to half the shellfish catch. And like many commercial and recreational crabbers, he worries that the tribes aren’t being held to the same rules as everyone else, and real damage is being done to the fishery.“If the treaty gives them half, that’s one thing,” Fenton said. “But it doesn’t seem like it’s being implemented properly.”Fenton noted that commercial crabbers are required to buy state licenses, which are limited in number and cost anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000. And they’re also subject to state inspections and closures.The tribes, on the other hand, aren’t required to buy licenses, and aren’t subject to state inspections. They also aren’t subject to the state closures, although tribes do avoid crabbing during molting periods, when crabs are reproducing.As a result of the increased tribal pressures on the crab fishery in recent years, Fenton worries that his days of making a living on Puget Sound are just about over.“It doesn’t look good for me,” he said.In yet another twist, the crab population has been unusually robust in recent years, with an annual catch of a million pounds of crab in the Everett-to-Oak Harbor region. That’s double the historical catch for those waters, and it’s an up-cycle that must inevitably come down at some point, according to Lemberg.“It’s surprising how strong the population has been,” Lemberg noted, “but I don’t see it continuing this way.”Lemberg said the December-to-April crabbing closure will likely become an annual event."

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