John Cushing and Lynn Miller examine their catch. (Susan Riemer/Staff Photo)

Dungeness crab numbers decline in south sound

Islander John Cushing has gone crabbing for the Pacific Northwest’s famed Dungeness crab two times this year, and unlike in previous years when he quickly caught his limit, this year he has come away nearly empty handed — and concerned about the state of the fishery.

Cushing has plenty of company, as many island crabbers have reported that they have caught few — if any — Dungeness keepers since the sport crab season opened on June 16. Don Velasquez, fish and wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), summed the situation up succinctly.

“What you see is a big drop in the harvest,” he said recently.

While the number of Dungeness crabs in the north sound was predicted to be high this season, declining numbers are evident in this area of Puget Sound. In Marine Area 11 — Vashon waters — and Marine Area 13 — south of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the harvest was predicted to be low before the season opened, based on early testing. In Marine Area 12, south of the Hood Canal bridge, the picture is mixed, Velasquez said, with the northerly portion showing higher harvest numbers and the southerly portion also showing a substantial decrease.

WDFW has fielded many complaints about crabbing in the south sound, he said, and several people have raised concerns about commercial tribal crabbing and the possibility of harvesting too many crabs from the water. The answer is likely more complex, he said. The reason for the decline has not been confirmed, but he believes one of the most likely factors is rising water temperatures from climate change, with naturally occurring warming conditions possibly mixed in. He noted that young Dungeness crab have a high mortality rate when water surface temperatures rise above 18 degrees Celsius, or 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

This fact is important when considering biological “recruitment,” the term for young entering the overall population of a species. Among Dungeness crab, Velasquez said, there is an evident problem in this region.

“In a healthy situation, you should see a good recruitment, with little crabs coming in to feed the future population,” he said. “That seems to be the case in north Puget Sound. In the south sound, that is not happening.”

In Washington, the State Department of Ecology tracks several aspects of Puget Sound, and in the last two years, water temperatures were remarkably high, according to the agency’s report, “Eyes Over Puget Sound.” The data shows that in 2015 and 2016, water temperatures in Puget Sound measured predominantly “higher than expected” or “higher than previous measurements.” This year, because of record winter and spring rains, the temperatures have returned to near normal.

Considerable study will likely be needed to determine if there is a correlation between the recent increased water temperatures and the declining Dungeness numbers; meanwhile, in their crab traps around Vashon, many people are finding red rock crab, which fare better in warmer waters than Dungeness crab do.

While there are few Dungeness crabs off Vashon to catch this year, many islanders have abundant crab stories to tell from when the catch was better. Patty Custer, who lives on the water on Maury Island, recalled her childhood at the same beachfront cabin. She would wade through shallow water in the eelgrass, and when she spotted a crab, she would take off a flip flop and nudge the crustacean, which would grab it and hold on while she carried the crab home for dinner. Sometimes, she added, she would run a rake through the eelgrass and catch plenty of crabs that way. It has only been in the last decade that she bothered by buy crab traps. This year, however, her luck has run out.

“This year the crabbing is terrible, she said. “It is fished out in my opinion. There is nothing there.”

Ben Davidson also grew up on Vashon, and while he did not report catching any Dungeness crabs with the flip flop technique, he did say the crabs, known for their sweet flavor, used to be abundant — big and beautiful in this part of the sound.

Recently, he went crabbing and out of about 50 crabs trapped, there were only two Dungeness; the rest were red rock crab, just as many others are reporting

Davidson noted, however, that many people he knows have crabbed in the same locations for years, at 50 to 60 feet deep. This year, he said, he knows of people who are trying their luck in deeper water, and have found more success at 80 to 120 feet.

John Weymer, a spokesman for the Puyallup Tribe, said that tribal crabbers have also found lower numbers this year, and they, too, had more success in deeper waters. Like Velasquez, he said tribal biologists and crabbers are concerned about warmer waters, while other tribal representatives say the decreased numbers are part of a natural cycle. Neither Weymer or Velasquez, however, had access to data that would support or refute the cyclical theory.

Crabbing is governed in part by what is known as the Rafeedie decision, named after Federal District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie, who ruled in 1994 that tribes have the right to harvest half of all shellfish from all of the “usual and accustomed” places. Now, in this area, there are two crabbing seasons: the tribal commercial season and the state recreational season, with set limits and dates for each.

Recent Dungeness catch numbers from WDFW’s Velasquez tell part of the story in recent years. Combined, the tribal and recreational harvests for Marine Area 11 totalled 180,000 pounds in the 2012-13 season. By the 2014-15 season, that number increased to nearly 223,000 pounds. The next season it dropped to nearly 208,000 pounds. The decline, however, was markedly steep in the 2016-17 season: just 56,000 pounds in all.

Velasquez noted that the tribal fishery was open from April 21 to May 20 this year, and they harvested less than 9,000 pounds of Dungeness crab from Vashon waters. In October, WDFW will have total numbers for this year’s harvest.

Weymer, speaking for the Puyallup Tribe, stressed that the value of crabs to native Americans goes beyond economics to cultural and spiritual significance.

“The tribe follows the state guidelines. Their main goal is to protect the environment,” he said. “We are very much stewards of the environment. We do not want to finish off the crab population and have it take 20 years to come back.”

Prior to opening for the crab season this year, WDFW staff suggested a moratorium in this area on crabbing, but the tribes did not take them up on it. Weymer said the Puyallup Tribe did not agree to a moratorium this year because the suggestion was just a staff suggestion, and to agree with such a moratorium a more formal process would need to be followed.

Velasquez agreed, and indicated such a moratorium may be in the works for future years.

“You can bet that we will be pursuing a more formal process to get some sort of agreement,” he said on Monday.

Late last month Cushing took a group of three fellow crabbers out on his boat on Quartermaster Harbor to try their luck. He noted he has crabbed on the island since 2004, and until recently the harvest was good, but last year, he was shocked by how few crabs he and others caught.

“As for as my own experience, it has been tremendous until last year,” he said. “Sometimes we would have nine crabbers and would harvest 40 plus in a day. We have always gotten our limit. Now, it is kind of wiped out. I am really discouraged.”

Cushing’s friend Lynn Miller, on board the boat that day, agreed, saying that previously, it was possible to catch “gobs and gobs” of crabs off the shores of Vashon.

“It seemed like this great thing when the fishery supported itself,” he said.

Both men suggested a moratorium.

“I would be all for closing everything down,” Miller said. “Let’s get things healthy.”

Cushing concurred.

“I do not see it coming back, unless someone does something,” he said.

Their harvest that day included several red rock crab, a few small Dungeness juveniles — which Miller deemed a good sign — and one Dungeness crab big enough to keep.

Pulling up one of the traps — and seeing signs of crabs in them, regardless of whether they were keepers or not — Miller spoke to the pleasures of crabbing.

“Pulling up the trap, feeling that it is heavy and seeing all the brown crabs under the water, that’s the thrill,” he said.

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