Port of South Whidbey eyes pinch on crabbers

Unrestricted public crabbing and fishing from the new docks at South Whidbey Harbor may soon be a thing of the past and replaced with some new and heavy restrictions.

South Whidbey Harbor Harbormaster Duncan McPhee collects a dock cart used by crabbers Monday. It’s one of a slew of problems that have led to port officials proposing crabbing and fishing restrictions for the new floats outside the wooden breakwater.

Unrestricted public crabbing and fishing from the new docks at South Whidbey Harbor may soon be a thing of the past and replaced with some new and heavy restrictions.

Beginning this summer, fishing will be prohibited entirely and crabbing limited to just nine people per week, according to a proposal before the Port of South Whidbey commissioners. The lucky few who would be allowed to soak pots would be selected through an application process and required to pay a $10 fee for each week of use. The rules would only apply to the new floats.

The board is expected to vote on the proposal at its next meeting, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 5475 Maxwelton Road.

Marina officials are bracing for negative public feedback and they may be right to do so.

“Ridiculous, that’s what I say it is,” said Tim Barchenger, a Marysville resident who with his daughter were the only people crabbing at the marina Monday afternoon.

They rode the ferry over that morning to spend a few hours plucking Dungeness and red rock crab from perches at the end of “D” dock. Along with “E” dock, it’s part of the 330-foot expansion the port completed in early 2014, which is located outside the wooden breakwater.

Unlike the floats inside the barrier, where both crabbing and fishing have long been prohibited, the wharf and “D” and “E” docks are all open season for anglers. The new floats have proved the most popular, however, as they’re farther out and tend to be the best fishing grounds, according to Harbormaster Duncan McPhee. He said fishing and crabbing are prohibited in most marinas but he purposely left it open on the expansion to see just how much regulation might be required. The only real rules were those already in place, and the marina’s hours of operation of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Two years later, it’s now exceedingly clear a free-for-all won’t work, he said.

“It needs managing,” McPhee said.

One of the biggest problems has been the sheer volume of people who utilize the new floats. They come from all over the island, and like the Barchengers, from off Whidbey as well. Some are from as far away as Seattle and Olympia, according to McPhee, and as many as 30 at a time.

“On opening day this year, I got here at 8 a.m. and there were dozens of people here,” he said.

It’s become overwhelming, and begun to have an effect on boaters who have paid for overnight moorage. They’ve grumbled about being woken up at all hours, a lack of picnic table space and dock carts that are too dirty to use because they’ve been used to haul crab gear.

The crowds have also been a source of messes, leaving old bait and trash for marina staff to pick up. Finally, as it seems with all crab fishing, the activity has attracted nefarious visitors and crime; there’s been several complaints of traps raided overnight.

Marina hours are enforced, but many fishermen are quick to guard what they view as their right of access to a public facility. For example, Barchenger said he was there on opening day and watched McPhee remind crabbers that the docks aren’t open until 9 a.m. Though he doesn’t like the proposed rules, he said the cussing out the harbormaster endured by one crabber was enough for him to understand why marina staff are now proposing a change.

The new rules were vetted by the port commissioners last week and though they didn’t make a decision, they voiced strong support for the changes. Commissioner Ed Halloran liked the idea so much that he said the district should consider similar rules at the port’s floats at the Clinton ferry dock.

“Clinton is just a mess,” Commissioner Curt Gordon agreed.

He characterized the situation as “out of control,” and that this was a good solution to closing the facilities to crabbing altogether.

Commissioner Jack Ng agreed as well, but also suggested signs that stated dock rules would be helpful, particularly some written in Asian languages, as some who frequent the docks don’t speak English, he said.

Though port officials contend that marinas commonly prohibit fishing and crabbing, that doesn’t appear to be the case on Whidbey. Smelt fishing is both popular and allowed at the Coupeville Wharf, the Oak Harbor Marina and the state docks in Cornet Bay at Deception Pass; crabbing is also allowed at Coupeville, Cornet Bay and Oak Harbor as well, though few do it at the latter largely because there are few crabs near the docks, according to Harbormaster Chris Sublet.

Smelt fishing is by far the more popular, but only on “F” dock which is the farthest out and reserved for transient and visiting boaters. In fact, the fishing crowd often stays away from moored vessels, Sublet said. The space makes the situation different, and Sublet was sympathetic to Langley’s woes. He added that providing trash cans and continual education have been keys to managing the crowds.

Jack Hartt, manager at Deception Pass State Park, was also understanding of Langley’s headache, saying that conflict between boaters, crabbers and fishermen at Cornet Bay is a problem. In fact, the park is looking at ways of balancing the competing uses to avoid conflict, but finding a way to make everyone happy is tricky.

“It’s a difficult tightrope to walk,” Hartt said.

According to McPhee, staff regularly remind crabbers and fishers of marina rules and state guidelines. People often crab with multiple pots — state law only allows two per person — even after being warned. Fishermen are also catching, and keeping, fish that either aren’t in season or otherwise are not allowed to be kept. In Langley, it’s time for change, he said.

If the board approves the new rules, enforcing hours would be aided by a time lock on the gate, which can only be opened with a code. Also, nine spots will be rented out on a weekly basis. Exactly how the application process would work remains unclear but McPhee confirmed that people may be able to secure several weeks consecutively. Also, notice of the application period and instructions will be provided to the public beforehand, including with an announcement in The Record.

As for fishing, McPhee said he believes the activity to be too dangerous for a crowded dock. With so many people and pets occupying the space, casting with hooks presents too much of a hazard, he said.

McPhee emphasized that the new rules would only apply to the new floats, not the wharf. Both fishing and crabbing there can continue unrestricted, marina hours excluded.

If the changes are OK’d by the commissioners next month, they would go into effect at the start of the next crabbing season, which begins July 1 and runs through Labor Day.


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