The lead-up to the official start of San Francisco’s Dungeness crab season had a feeling that has defined much of the past few years for the industry: Hurry up and wait.
Since 2019, concerns about the crabbing industry’s impact on migrating whales have pushed the traditional Nov. 15 start date for the season to December or January. This year, whale patterns led to a wintry Dec. 29 start date.
Those issues have been compounded by the pandemic and a devastating fire that swept through a Pier 45 warehouse in May 2020, destroying millions of dollars worth of gear. It calls into question the future of an iconic industry long tied to San Francisco’s proud maritime tradition and tourist appeal.
“There is no real normal anymore, that's part of the problem,” said John Barnett, a longtime crabber and the president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association. “It was pretty much just hard work when I got into it, but now it’s hard work and take everything off of the boat, get the boat ready, come down every day and wait.”
Barnett, who spoke in early December on his vessel, the Amigo, said he lost $300,000 worth of equipment in the 2020 warehouse blaze, primarily rigged-up crab traps vital to his operations. The devastation, paired with other hurdles, has led the third-generation fisherman to consider dropping out of the industry entirely.
"If I knew right now what I knew when the fire hit, I might not have bought any more gear,” Barnett said. “We didn't know when the fire happened that we were also going to be in for a couple of years of hardly any tourism. So, yeah, it's been a one-two punch.”
The delays in the start of the season stem from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity after a record 71 incidents of whale entanglements along the West Coast during the 2016 season, about a third of which were caused by Dungeness crab equipment.
A settlement in 2019 created new crabbing practices meant to lower the likelihood of entanglements, such as using less fishing lines and fewer buoys in shallower waters. It also created new protocols meant to evaluate the likely presence of whales and adjust the season accordingly; it now ends in April rather than June.
Officials have made some moves to ease the burden on the industry. For example, a new state law provides more time to put traps out prior to the start of the season and a pilot program has been launched to allow San Francisco crabbers to sell product directly off their boats.
However, it’s still an open question whether the vibrant orange crustacean sign beckoning visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf will remain relevant in the years ahead.
Nick Krieger, who’s been crabbing in San Francisco for nearly a decade aboard his 42-foot vessel, the Arianna Rose, said the regular delays have led some fishermen to take on riskier outings, particularly as the bulk of the catch happens in the first two weeks of the season.
Weather conditions in the new time frame are often more dangerous compared to the calmer seas typically seen in the fall. Krieger pointed to the example of a boat that sank in a storm a mere five days into the season back in 2019.
“I’m afraid there's going to be a year where we’re going to be trading whales for fishermen's lives,” Krieger said.
The uncertainty around the season’s start date has also made it difficult to find reliable labor. Krieger said the two deckhands he employed during the last season decided against returning.
“They told me that they can’t go a month-and-a-half or two months without fishing and without income,” Krieger said.
While Krieger largely agrees with the steps taken to protect the whale populations, he hopes fish and wildlife officials could provide more certainty. One idea broadly supported by crabbers is setting a definite date prior to which the crab season won’t start.
The Center for Biological Diversity says that while the changes in fishing practices have had a demonstrable effect on issues around entanglements, more still needs to be done to protect vulnerable species like Humpback whales and sea turtles.
“We’re still seeing whales getting entangled not only in Dungeness crab gear, but also in lobster gear and other traps,” said Kristen Monsell, legal director of the ocean program for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Center has petitioned the federal government to require the adoption of so-called “ropeless” fishing gear within the next five years. This technology functions through an acoustic release trigger that brings a buoy up to the surface when activated. This so-called “on-demand” or “pop-up buoy” gear would address uncertainty around the season by rendering the entanglement issue moot.
Existing crabbers say the technology is too speculative, too expensive and—at least currently—not effective.
Krieger said updating his equipment would cost in the neighborhood of $500,000 and tests of ropeless gear prototypes have seen a 20% failure rate.
Monsell said while the center understands the concerns about the ropeless gear, it believes a legal mandate is key to pushing adoption and technology forward.
“The future needs to start now and it needs to start with a mandate,” Monsell said.
The fishermen say a recovery of the whale population in recent years means the expensive new tech isn't necessary. Barnett said he would likely leave the industry if the new gear was mandated before the technology was proven to work.
But even without the change, he has one foot out the door. The immediate future of crabbing in San Francisco, he says, will look much like it does now: a lot of uncertainty and a whole lot of waiting.
Kevin Truong can be reached at email@example.com