Biologist gets crabby reception
June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:00 PM
"A mild-mannered biologist probably received a warmer welcome than he had bargained for when he attempted to explain Dungeness crab regulations to a crowd of more than 60 people Thursday night on South Whidbey.Many in attendance at the meeting of The Fishin' Club came to the gathering upset that, in their view, recreational crab fishermen are being short-changed by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.Complaints came from residents of Double Bluff, Cultus Bay, Holmes Harbor and elsewhere that legal-sized crabs are often overharvested by commercial and tribal fishermen, leaving nothing for local recreational crabbers.Fish and Wildlife Biologist Steve Burton, a 27-year veteran of the department, acknowledged there are problems in setting boundaries for the three major interest groups: tribal commercial fishermen, non-tribal commercial fishermen, and recreational crab fishermen. By law, the tribes receive half the harvest and the other half is supposed to be split between commercial and recreational fishermen.Seasons are established by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, and Burton described those meetings as highly emotional as tribes and the non-tribal commercial interests get into shouting matches over who gets what area. Recreational crabbers often lose out, he indicated, because they're poorly represented. He personally took the blame that Useless Bay was wide open to commercial crabbers last year. It's my fault, he said, describing the need to quickly draw a boundary during a particularly heated dispute. I had to come up with something. He used a boulder on the beach as a boundary line marker, and that boulder opened up too large an area to the crabbers.Burton urged the sports anglers to get more involved in the season setting process. Go to the commission meetings, he said. However, several in the audience said they have tried that and nobody listens.The state listens more to the tribes and commercials, said one man. They're more organized.Burton agreed with the comment. At the last meeting it was basically all commercial, he said. He again urged sportsmen to attend commission meetings.This is what you call lip service, muttered one disgruntled man in the crowd.Crabs that can be legally kept must be males and measure at least 6 and one-quarter inches across. One man complained that such crabs were wiped out last year in Useless Bay. He asked Burton how long it will be before the remaining smaller crabs reach legal size. Burton responded that adult crabs grow about one inch a year, so after their next molt they should be harvestable.Burton opened the meeting by explaining how Fish and Wildlife ascertains crab populations so seasons may be set. But he said crab counting lags behind fish counting techniques, in which sonar images provide good population estimates before seasons are established. With crabs, he said, we're looking backward all the time, basically managing the next season on how many crabs were caught last season. That's our least preferred method of management.Recreational crabbers are now asked to send in catch record cards, but that new program hasn't caught on yet. The compliance rate is very, very low, he said. The department tests crab populations with its own crab pots, and Indian tribes monitor their own catches.Burton also took some hits for lack of enforcement of crabbing regulations, which he blamed on state budget cuts several years ago. But those cuts were partly restored last year, he said, and enforcement veterans are now back on the waters.Burton was most relaxed when talking about crab biology and giving tips on how to catch crabs in pots. I don't like the political stuff at all, he said.Special master petition underwayWell known outdoor columnist J.D. Wade, who presently writes for The Reel News, said in the December issue of the paper that a special master could settle crab fishing disputes between Tribes, non-tribal commercials and sports fishermen.Wade said Judge Rafeedie provided for a special master when he upheld the Boldt decision several years ago, because he foresaw that a dispute resolution process would be needed. According to Wade, the Washington State Attorney General has the power to appoint a special master, but has repeatedly refused Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife requests to do so.The Puget Sound Crab Association is circulating a petition to be submitted to the Attorney General. Sportsmen should unite in solidarity with the crab association to help WDFW gain some control over the tribes, he wrote.Crabbing tipsBiologist Steve Burton is also a recreational crab pot fishermen. He offered several tips to the crowd of fellow fishermen Thursday night:* Chicken backs make excellent bait, because they're fatty and water soluble.* For some reason, crabs like aluminum. Attach a pop or beer can to the inside of your crab pot.* Beware of electrolysis, which occurs when different metals are exposed to salt water. This creates an electrical field that scares crabs away. Using aluminum or vinyl-covered pots helps. "