PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA — The Dungeness crabs are looking puny this year, sport fishers say, and that does not bode well for the commercial harvest that will begin Sunday.
The sport fishermen, whose crabbing season opened Nov. 1, have plenty of the toothsome delicacy that appears on Bay Area holiday dinner tables, because they can take undersize crustaceans.
But the crabs, which tend to congregate close to Half Moon Bay at this time of year, are too small for commercial fishers' regulation minimum 6¼ inches wide.
Half Moon Bay fisherman Duncan MacLean said he and his fellow commercial crabbers are not feeling optimistic about their season.
"It sounds like it's kind of a tossup. I'm sure we'll make a season out of it, but I'm not sure it will be a bumper year," he said.
Party boat Captain Allen Chin has made a couple of runs out of Pillar Point Harbor since Nov. 1 with customers on his boat, the Tigerfish.
They caught all the crabs they wanted, but he says the commercial season will be "pretty grim" based on all the undersized crabs he's seen. He said he fears there won't be enough local crabs to go around as soon as the out-of-town crab boats descend on the Bay Area to compete for the bounty.
"If it's anything like it was last year, as soon as the commercial season opened it was pretty much over. Last year on opening day a lot of guys were stacking their crab pots and going home," Chin said.
Last winter's crab season was disappointing. The crabbers earned $2.25 per pound as they raced to bring in as many crabs as they could for the all-important Thanksgiving market — a poor payday by historical wholesale standards.
The prices increased to $7 per pound later in the season as Dungeness crab became extremely scarce, but most of the crabbers by then had tied up their boats for the season, MacLean said.
Crab meat processors control the market and set the prices at the start of the season. Crab fishermen from Monterey to Mendocino are already threatening to keep their boats tied up for several days after Sunday to make sure they'll earn a price worth going fishing for.
Such "lockouts" have occurred several times in the past few years.
"We're going to ask for $2.50 to $3 per pound," MacLean said.