Local crab regulations to tighten

If you fish for crab north of the Tacoma Narrows bridges, you're in luck. But if your favorite waters are south of the bridges, your annual take will likely take a hit.

A new Puget Sound recreational crab fishing policy, adopted Friday by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, will mean fewer days and months of crabbing each week in the waters off Olympia.

Under the approved option, one of three considered by the commission, crabbing across Puget Sound will be allowed five days a week, including weekends, from July 1 to Labor Day. A winter season would run seven days a week from October to December. The daily limit would remain at five Dungeness crab.

The current crab season in Marine Area 13, covering the Sound south of the Narrows bridges, is open seven days a week June 18-Jan. 2.

Rather than use harvest targets based on the pounds of crab caught in each management area of the Sound, the fishery will be managed using a fixed season.

While the new policy has been approved, the commission now must change the actual state fishing rules to reflect the alterations. The commission is expected to hold public hearings on rule changes in December and vote on the changes at its February meeting.

The change is expected to reduce the annual Marine Area 13 crab take, which has averaged 32,200 pounds for the past five years, to 22,000 pounds annually. In Hood Canal, the recent annual take is expected to go from about 110,000 pounds to a projected annual catch of about 91,000 pounds.

The policy could increase the overall recreational catch around Puget Sound by more than 40 percent, agency official say. Another benefit of the change, said a department official, is having the same start date for the entire Puget Sound season. This year’s fishery had four starting dates.

“The number of sport crabbers has grown dramatically in recent years, and Puget Sound is, by far, the most popular place to fish,” said commission chairwoman Miranda Wecker in a statement.

For several years, recreational fishing proponents have been pressuring the commission to increase the recreational allocation. From 2005 to 2009, the recreational catch has averaged 1.26 million pounds, while the Puget Sound commercial fleet averaged 2.72 million pounds.

According to a Fish and Wildlife report, recreational anglers would be expected to land more than 1.83 million pounds of crab during both seasons. That would leave commercial fishermen more than 2.23 million pounds to catch, 55 percent of the state’s allowable annual catch in the Sound. Currently, commercial fishermen catch 67 percent of the annual catch.

Brian Allison, the president of the Puget Sound Crab Association, described the decision as “completely biased and unfair.”

“It’s not just the possible loss of jobs in the commercial fleet, but it’s the biggest detriment to the resource they could have done,” he said.

Allison cited the recreational fleet’s lack of compliance with state rules as one of the reasons the commercial fleet argued against the chosen option.

“They have no idea what the actual catch of the recreational fleet really is,” he said. He fears overfishing will hurt the resource.

There will be no change to tribal fisheries.

All the options under review were consistent with findings released earlier this year by the state Auditor’s Office. The audit found the current policy for allocating the catch between nontribal commercial and recreational fisheries would not accommodate the continued growth in the number of Puget Sound sport crabbers.

Approximately 220,000 people purchased license endorsements to fish for Dungeness crab in Puget Sound this year, according to the department. Five years ago, just 160,000 people were licensed to crab in the Sound.

“We’ve waited for this day for the last five years. It’s been a long time coming,” said Tony Floor, director of fishing affairs for the Northwest Marine Trade Association, about the overall increase in allocation. “The commission has studied this thing from one end to the other, but it’s nice to see the economic contribution and the value of sports fishing have been recognized.”

Floor said the sport fishing industry is ready to assist the state in helping recreational anglers comply with crabbing laws. Improving compliance is a matter of enforcement and education, he said.

To help boost the state’s efforts in those areas, the commission authorized the agency to seek legislative approval to increase fees on Puget Sound crab endorsements. The department will seek to increase the annual fee from $3 to $7.50, and from $1 to $3 on temporary licenses.

“It’s our job to help educate people before they go crabbing so they know what the rules are,” Floor said.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure

Change to annual sport crab catch

Here are the projected annual catches for local waters under the new Puget Sound crabbing fishing season set up:

AreaProjected catch 2005-09 yearly avg.

Olympia 22,016 pounds 32,211 pounds

Hood Canal 91,273 pounds 110,836 pounds

Tacoma 87,708 pounds 46,030 pounds