Racing for crabs… Costs and management options evaluated in Dungeness crab fishery
Christopher M. Dewees, UC Davis
Kristen Sortais, UC Davis
Matthew J. Krachey, Humboldt State University
Steven C. Hackett, Humboldt State University
David G. Hankin, Humboldt State University
California Agriculture 58(4):186-189. DOI: 10.3733/ca.v058n04p186.
C.M. Dewees is Sea Grant Marine Fisheries Specialist, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, UC Davis; K. Sortais is Research Associate, Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, UC Davis; M.J. Krachey is Graduate Student, Department of Economics, Humboldt State University; S.C. Hackett is Professor, Department of Economics, Humboldt State University; D.G. Hankin is Professor, Department of Fisheries, Humboldt State University.
Dungeness crab support a valuable commercial fishery in California, yet in recent decades the fishery has intensified significantly, with most crab landed during the first 6 weeks of the 7-month season. This study of fishermen's operating costs and their opinions of new management measures is intended to support discussions and decision-making about policy changes that may affect the economics of the fishery. Our survey results show that a majority of fishermen have favorable views of only two of 12 alternative measures (one trap-limit for all size vessels and daylight-only fishing). However, opinions of these measures vary between owners of different-sized vessels. Experiences in other crustacean trap fisheries around the world suggest that simply implementing these two measures may not significantly decrease total trap numbers fished or slow the race for crab.
Dungeness crab range from Santa Barbara to Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Commercial landings fluctuate widely each winter, but consistently rank as one of the most valuable Pacific Coast fisheries. From the 1990-1991 season (generally December through June) through the 2000-2001 season, combined landings for California, Oregon and Washington averaged 32.8 million pounds, worth between $31.7 million to $84.4 million annually to fishermen (Didier 2002).
California's Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) fishery began in the San Francisco area about 1848 and expanded northward after World War II. The fishery has long been intense and highly competitive. On Dec. 11, 1949, a Hum-boldt Times headline reported, “Three Crescent City fishermen beaten in San Francisco crab war… Bay Area men ired at northern poachers.”
The Pacific Coast's commercial Dungeness crab fishery pulls in between $32 million and $84 million annually, with crab abundance peaking in approximately 10-year cycles. While the catch has been sustainable, in recent years 80% of landings have been made in the first full month of the season (December). Crab boats are loaded with traps in Crescent City, Calif., before the season opens.
California landings have been highly variable, ranging from a low of 350,000 pounds in 1973-1974 to more than 30 million pounds in 1977-1978 (Hankin and Warner 2001). A small but growing recreational fishery is believed to take less than 1% of the harvest. Peaks in abundance appear to occur in approximately 10-year cycles.
The fishery has been fully and intensely exploited for at least 40 years. Approximately 80% to 90% of the legal-sized male crabs are harvested each season. Despite this intense harvest and high variability in abundance, most scientists and industry participants feel that current regulations are adequately protecting the crab resource (Hankin and Warner 2001). These regulations include a 1995 cap on the number of vessels allowed to harvest Dungeness crab in California waters, a 6.25-inch minimum harvest size for male crabs, approximately 5 months annual closure to harvesting, no take of female crabs, and mandated escape openings on traps for undersize crabs. California's seafood industry has appreciated what appears to be a sustainable and valuable harvest of Dungeness crabs at a time when other major fisheries such as rockfish and salmon have declined significantly.
Yet juxtaposing the sustainability of crab stocks is the fishermen's intensifying yearly race for crab. In recent decades, the increasing number of vessels and intensity of their participation has led to a race for crabs. Though landings have come primarily during winter months since at least 1950, before 1980 the crab season was spread from December to July. In recent years, approximately 80% of the landings are made in December (Hankin and Warner 2001). The fishermen's intense race has led to glutted markets, increased densities of crab traps on the fishing grounds, and fishing in dangerous conditions leading to loss of lives and vessels.
In 1995, the crab industry and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) began to address the harvesting over-capacity with legislation mandating a moratorium on the issuing of more permits for vessels to harvest Dungeness crab. While this restricted the number of vessels to about 600, it did nothing to limit the amount of fishing effort (time, traps, vessel size, horsepower) used by these participants. Reduced opportunities in other fisheries, especially those targeting rockfish and other groundfish, have increased fishing effort directed at crab.
For years, fishermen have discussed spreading harvests more evenly through the season, but have come to no agreements. To contribute to this discussion, we surveyed California Dungeness crab fishermen to gather basic demographic and economic data and to measure their opinions on current and potential fishery management measures. Our research is intended to provide an information base from which industry may decide what next steps (if any) they wish to take.
Our first step was to review regulatory management tools used in other crustacean trap fisheries around the world via a literature review and contacts with fishery managers (see box). Most of these management tools address issues related to over-capacity in fishing fleets and slowing the pace of harvest. We provided this information to fishermen with our mail survey questionnaire.
Our primary research tool was a six-page mail survey sent to the 616 individuals who purchased California commercial Dungeness crab vessel permits for 2001. We designed our survey based on Dillman (2000). We asked permit holders about characteristics of their fishing business, crab fishing costs, revenues and effort, their opinions of the current management system and their opinions of 12 potential management tools (contact first author for a copy of the questionnaire). We asked fishermen to rank their responses to each management tool on a five-point Likert scale (strongly unfavorable to strongly favorable). The survey concluded by giving respondents an opportunity to describe their vision of the best system for managing California's Dungeness crab fishery.
Given widespread wariness among fishermen that research might lead to new regulations that would hurt their operations, we actively conducted presurvey outreach. We met with focus groups of 2 to 25 crab fishermen at four major ports (Crescent City, Eureka, Noyo and Bodega Bay) and at a California Salmon Council meeting in Sacramento. At these meetings we distributed summaries of crustacean management tools in use internationally, attempted to assuage fears about participation in the project, answered questions, asked for advice on increasing response rates, and pre-tested and received feedback on draft surveys.
After multiple revisions and two pre-tests, we mailed our final survey in November 2002. We sent only one survey to the 27 fishermen we could identify as owning multiple California crab permits. Two weeks after mailing the surveys, we sent a follow-up postcard to all permit holders as a reminder and offered a replacement survey if necessary.
Seven surveys were returned as undeliverable and 243 were returned completed, a response rate of 40%. We believe our sample is generally representative of the total crab fleet. Survey respondents generally reflect the home-port distribution of all permit holders (table 1).
Daylight-only fishing: Harvest is permitted during daylight hours only.
Individual fishing quotas (IFQ): Allocates a portion of the total allowable catch (TAC) to individual vessels based on agreed-upon criteria such as catch history or vessel characteristics. IFQs can include: (1) individual transferable fishing quotas, which can be sold or leased (either freely or within agreed-upon constraints) among fishery participants; (2) individual fishing quotas, which are not transferable; (3) community quotas, in which part or all of the total allowable catch is allocated to a community or group of associated individuals to allocate locally among fishery participants.
One trap-haul (pull) per day: Hauling gear to the surface is permitted once per day.
Regional/area/zonal management: Management differs between locations (for example, seasons, trap limits and total allowable catches differ by locale).
Trap certificates: Allow individual fishermen to use a certain number of traps for the season. Each certificate represents one trap. Trap certificates can be: (1) transferable, in which a portion of an overall trap total is allocated to fishermen and can be sold or leased in or out (either freely or within agreed-upon constraints); or (2) nontransferable, allowing fishermen to choose a tier within a per-vessel maximum trap limit.
Trap limits: Establishes the maximum number of traps a vessel can fish. They can be: (1) one maximum, which applies to all vessels regardless of vessel size; (2) multi-tier, with several different maximum limits for different-size vessels or other criteria; (3) graduated, which change over the season (for example, increasing as crab abundance declines or as the season goes on).
Trip limits: Limits the landings that individual vessels can make per trip.
TABLE 1. Home-port distribution of vessels with California Dungeness crab vessel permits compared with home-port distribution of survey respondents
TABLE 2. Characteristics of individuals with California Dungeness crab vessel permits (number of respondents)
TABLE 3. Mean Dungeness crab fishing costs of survey respondents, by vessel size
When compared to DFG permit data, our sample contained a similar proportion of owners of vessels under 30 feet (14.9% versus 15.4%). Medium vessels are slightly under-represented (58.6% versus 70.8%), and vessels over 50 feet (which tend to be the largest producers) are over-represented (26.8% versus 13.8%) (table 2). The majority of survey respondents own medium vessels and about half have at least 20 years of experience fishing crab. About 75% fish with fewer than 400 traps.
By looking more closely at trap usage, we found that during the 2000-2001 season fishermen deployed an average of 293 traps per vessel during the peak fishing month of December. On average during December, small, medium and large vessels fished 138,259 and 448 traps each, respectively. Trap numbers increased substantially with vessel size, reflecting increasing capability to carry traps. During the first month or two of the season traps were usually hauled daily. As crab density and catch rates declined, traps were often pulled at 48- to 72-hour intervals. Fishermen will move their traps to different areas or depths in search of improved catch rates.
By extrapolating the mean number of traps by vessel size fished by respondents, to the total number of permit owners by vessel size, we estimate that 171,090 traps were deployed in California's crab fishery in December 2000. This compares with estimates of 146,978 and 64,806 traps in Oregon and Washington during the same time period (Didier 2002). While we are not aware of any other estimates of California trap numbers since the 1975-1976 season, Didier estimated that from 1971-1972 through 1975-1976 California trap numbers averaged 29,115. During the same period Oregon and Washington trap estimates were 52,380 and 35,840, respectively. It seems clear that the amount of fishing gear in California waters has increased significantly since 1975-1976.
Dungeness crab fishing is just one of several fisheries that fishermen utilize during the year. Salmon, albacore tuna, groundfish, pink shrimp, sea urchin and live fish were often mentioned in the diverse mix of target species. We were surprised at the relative importance of crab to respondents; 73% indicated that more than 40% of their gross income came from fishing Dungeness crab (table 2). For those with vessels less than 30 feet, crab fishing appears to be a relatively minor component of their incomes.
When we asked fishermen to estimate the value of their crab permit, estimates increased with vessel size. On average, owners of small, medium and large vessels estimated their permit value at $10,303, $18,187 and $31,111, respectively (roughly $500 per foot of vessel length). Larger vessels are able to load, move and fish more traps. They can also better handle the dangerous winter weather conditions and are more likely to be able to fish day and night. In addition, some of the larger vessels can hold large quantities of crab in live wells onboard, enabling them to take multiday trips.
As average trap usage increases by vessel size, so do annual and daily variable costs attributed to crab fishing (table 3). Gear repair primarily involves replacement of lost or worn-out traps, while trap storage costs occur in the off-season. Crewmembers are typically paid a percentage of the landings proceeds, reflecting traditions of crew motivation and sharing risk. Crew costs increase with vessel size because larger vessels often require two deckhands to handle the larger number of traps hauled each day, whereas small vessels usually have just one deckhand in addition to the skipper.
The heart of our research was our analysis of fishermen's opinions of management tools. Opinions generally fell into three tiers (table 4). The majority of respondents expressed a favorable or strongly favorable opinion of only three tools: the current management system, one trap-limit for all size vessels and daylight-only fishing. The current management system consists primarily of regulations designed to sustain crab populations, whereas the 12 other management tools relate to vessel operations, economics and allocation of the catch.
The large majority of respondents approved of one trap-limit for all vessels rather than having trap limits based on vessel size. There was little support for limiting overall statewide trap numbers by issuing transferable or nontransferable trap certificates to individual vessels. Fishermen expressed almost no support for increasing trap limits during the season as crab densities on the fishing grounds decline.
A majority of respondents also supported confining fishing to daylight hours. This measure would limit the number of traps that could be pulled on a single day. Currently some vessels, primarily larger ones, operate 24 hours a day and are able to fish more traps. Allowing only one pull of traps per day received little support. Respondents expressed concerns about the ability to enforce this regulation short of onboard video cameras.
TABLE 4. Opinions of Dungeness crab survey respondents on proposed management tools
The use of harvest-rights systems such as individual or community quotas, which have been used elsewhere to slow the race for fish and shellfish, garnered little support. Respondents mentioned concerns about aggregation of harvest rights in the hands of a few and DFG's lack of ability to determine annual quotas as barriers to implementation of these types of quota systems.
Finally, only a minority favored managing the fishery with differing regulations in different zones, even though there are currently different season opening and closing dates in Northern and central California.
In discussions at our five presurvey focus-group meetings and with fishery managers, we found that much of the historical and current disagreement over alternative management approaches has been among participants with different-sized vessels. Industry discussions about trap limits and zonal management have broken down over differences between owners of large as compared to medium and small vessels. For this reason we decided to take a closer look at the differences in opinions of management tools based on vessel size categories (vessel size is also highly correlated with number of traps used, percentage income from crab fishing and number of days fishing for crab annually). Vessels were divided into three length categories: less than 30 feet (small), 30 to 50 feet (medium) and larger than 50 feet (large). These categories are the same as those used by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission in their analyses of California, Oregon and Washington Dungeness crab fisheries (PSMFC 1993).
We tested the null hypothesis that opinions regarding the 13 management tools do not differ among vessel size categories (small, medium and large). We first used a Kruskal-Wallis test (Hays 1988) to determine if there were significant differences in opinions. When the Kruskal-Wallis test indicated significant differences among categories, we then used the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test to make specific pair-wise comparisons across vessel size categories. To test whether difference exists in the mean response across two categories, a randomization test based on Manly (1997) and written by the authors was used. We report the mean P value of the 10,000 simulations here.
Using the Kruskal-Wallis test, we rejected the null hypothesis that respondent opinions are the same across the vessel size categories for five alternative management tools (table 5). Generally, as vessel size increases, support decreases for one trap-limit for all size vessels, trip limits, community quotas, regional management and daylight-only fishing. When we tested for pair-wise differences between specific size categories, large vessel owners' opinions were significantly different from both medium and small vessel owners on all five management tools. Differences between small and medium vessel owners' opinions differed only on regional management.
Though the pace of Dungeness crab fishing has continued to intensify, it remains a profitable and important fishery. Crab processors have evolved strategies to deal with the huge early-season pulse of crab landings ( see sidebar, page 190 ). At the same time, fishermen continue to struggle to find ways to cope rationally with the increasing intensity of the crab harvest.
TABLE 5 Opinions* of survey respondents on crab management tools, by vessel size category *Scale: 5 = strongly favorable, 4 = favorable, 3 = neutral, 2 = unfavorable, 1 = strongly unfavorable.
There is widespread approval among fishermen of the current crab-management regulations based on traditional fishery management tools with seasons. However, when additional regulations are considered that affect fishing operations, opinions become highly polarized or negative.
The great increase in the number of traps fished and the accelerating pace of the fishery has led to years of discussion about whether to limit the number of traps each vessel may fish. On Sept. 23, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have established a limit of 250 traps per vessel south of Point Arena, on an experimental basis. Our study showed that the majority of the fleet, with the exception of the large vessel owners, viewed trap limits favorably. Many of those survey respondents who oppose trap limits stated that they viewed it as a reallocation of crab to smaller operators. They saw this as a restriction of their business that was unjustified in terms of resource conservation.
We anticipate that trap limits would at best cap the total number of traps near current levels and prevent large increases in fishing effort. After implementation of trap limits in Maine's lobster fishery, the total number of traps fished increased (Acheson 2001). While the relatively few lobstermen above the trap limit reduced their operations, many of those under the limit increased their trap numbers toward the limit. Depending on the level set for trap limits, California's outcome could be similar. One alternative approach would be to scale trap limits to vessel length. However, the fleet did not rank this option favorably (table 4). California should also examine the early outcomes from trap-limit systems recently implemented in Washington state. Inside Puget Sound, trap limits are set at 100 per vessel and there are six harvest regions. Along the Pacific Coast there are trap tiers ranging from 350 to 500 traps per vessel based on catch history (personal communication, L. Veneroso, Shellfish Policy Leader, Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife).
If the industry wants to significantly reduce the total amount of gear in the water, additional measures that “ratchet down” the trap limit may be necessary. Some form of trap certificates, similar to those implemented in the Georgia blue crab and Florida spiny lobster fisheries (CFAC 1997; Larken and Milon 2000) might eventually need to be considered. Such a system would involve setting a total number of traps to be used by the fleet and issuing certificates (one per trap) to be placed on each trap by fishermen. The number of certificates could be reduced each year until the desired fleet-wide total is reached. Certificate transferability and geographic specificity could also be included.
Some form of trap limits is the alternative management tool most likely to be implemented because of the high level of approval among fishermen. Trap limits may be implemented together with other restrictions such as daylight-only fishing and trap limits that differ between central and Northern California. The recently implemented buyback of trawlers (December 2003) administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) included 23 large vessels that also fished for crab in California (U.S. Congress 2003). Fishermen remaining in the trawl, pink shrimp and Dungeness crab fisheries will repay about 80% of the cost of this buyback to NMFS. This 27% reduction in large vessels that fish crab may change the dynamics of industry discussions about trap limits.
Quota systems would assign specified harvest rights for a proportion of the total allowable catch to individuals or communities. They are generally perceived unfavorably by all sectors of the crab industry. In theory and in practice, however, these harvest-rights systems create incentives that slow the race for fish and shellfish and provide opportunities for innovative marketing to add value (Casey et al. 1995; NRC 2001); both results might improve the economic performance of the fishery. With assured access to a proportion of the total catch, quota holders could time their fishing and configure their fishing operation to maximize profitability. Some processors currently are able to do this to some degree by freezing crab harvested early in the season and then processing and selling the meat during the year to meet high-value demand by restaurants ( see sidebar, page 190 ).
Survey respondents were concerned about the potential excessive aggregation of harvest rights and difficulties in making the accurate annual crab abundance estimates needed to set individual or community quotas. If quota systems were ever implemented, these concerns would have to be addressed. In addition, individual or community quotas would have to be specified geographically to be effective.
Given the current unfavorable opinion of quota systems, they are unlikely to be considered seriously in the near future even though they would likely slow the pace of the fishery. The Pacific Fishery Management Council's fall 2003 decision to examine individual fishing quotas for the groundfish trawl fishery could influence future knowledge and attitudes about quota systems in the crab fleet. The British Columbia (Canada) groundfish trawl fishery has operated profitably in recent years under an individual quota system. This has provoked a high level of awareness and interest from the U.S. Pacific Coast trawl fleet. The council conducted public scoping meetings on trawl fishery individual quota systems during summer 2004.
Owners of larger vessels tend to view spatial management unfavorably. Their comments indicated a desire to move freely throughout the state to take advantage of the earlier season opening in central California as well as to maintain flexibility in their operations. Some fishermen would like to see trap limits only for central California and a uniform season opening date statewide. We feel that regional differences are likely to be part of any changes in crab management because crabs are usually more abundant in Northern California and the northern vessels, on average, are larger.
These two management tools could be used to slow the fishery by reducing the fleet's fishing efficiency and harvest capacity. Not surprisingly, daylight-only fishing was significantly more popular with smaller vessel owners for whom night fishing is impractical and risky. Daylight-only fishing would reduce competition from large vessels that can fish many more traps, 24 hours per day, and in adverse weather conditions.
California Dungeness crab fishermen were surveyed about new management measures to distribute the catch more evenly throughout the season. The majority — except large vessel owners — support the establishment of limits on the number of traps per vessel. Commercial fisherman James Gullett and Humboldt State University student Aaron Bliesner pull traps on the Humboldt County coast.
This study clearly shows that the majority of the vessel owners favor some type of trap limits and some limitations on fishing at night. The larger, higher producers, who are fewer in number, tend to view further restrictions negatively, as hampering their ability to fully utilize their harvesting capacity. These decades-long differences in opinions due to vessel size continue to make management changes difficult.
The most likely near-term outcome is the adoption of some form of trap limits, at least on an experimental basis. The crab fishery in Washington recently adopted tiered trap limits and Oregon is seriously considering them. If Oregon implements trap limits, excess gear from Oregon could wind up being used in California and further intensify the fishery, pushing California toward trap limits.
Any trap-limit program should be closely evaluated after implementation. Other than preventing explosive growth in the amount of gear fished, a single level of trap limits (250 traps per vessel is proposed in current pending legislation) alone would likely have little effect on the overall fishery other than some transfer of catch from larger operations to smaller ones. As in many other common-pool natural resource settings, the potential for redistribution of profits serves as a potent barrier to change (Hackett 1992).
If the fishermen's goal is to reduce the total amount of gear fished significantly below the current total of approximately 170,000 traps, some plan for systematically lowering total trap numbers will be needed. Some options include:
Transferable or nontransferable certificates could be used that fit under an overall statewide or regional trap total. This total could be adjusted downward in an orderly fashion over the years to reach a generally acceptable number. Setting a target trap total(s) at the beginning of the process may help fishermen to accept the program.
Limits could be set lower each season until reaching a target level. Larger vessels would likely oppose this approach. Trap limits could be scaled to vessel size.
Those interested in leaving the fishery would receive a monetary payment similar to the recently implemented trawl-fleet buyback through a government loan. Those remaining in the fishery would reimburse the government over time. Some restrictions on traps would be needed to prevent excessive expansion by those remaining.
Transferable or nontransferable rights would allocate a proportion of the overall allowable catch to each fisherman. This could slow the race for crabs and provide incentives for fishermen to make their individual businesses more efficient. It would require improved estimates of crab abundance, improved enforcement, quotas within geographic zones and agreed-upon quota aggregation limits.
Let attrition under the current restricted-access program gradually reduce fleet size and perhaps the number of traps fished. This would likely take many years.
Trap limits appear to be the only alternative with a likelihood of adoption in the near term, but the long-term consequences of that approach are unclear.
Why haven't management tools used elsewhere in the world been seriously considered in California? It could be because trap limits have been considered and debated in great depth for many years. Fishermen, processors, DFG staff and key legislators have high awareness and knowledge about this approach compared to other alternatives.
Rogers (1995), in summarizing the large body of research about the adoption of new technologies and practices, demonstrates that people go through a series of stages in their process of adoption or rejection. Crab fishery participants are clearly well along in this process for trap limits and have developed perceptions of their relative advantages or disadvantages. However, many of these same participants have not been as focused on alternative management tools and are not as far along in the adoption/rejection process for them.
In addition, the California legislature — rather than the Pacific Fishery Management Council, DFG or the Fish and Game Commission — has primary responsibility for policy related to the Dungeness crab fishery. (The U.S. Congress transferred this authority to the individual state legislatures in 1996.) The long-term lack of industry consensus has made management changes by the legislature difficult in the past and is a likely barrier to alternative management approaches in the future, with the possible exception of some form of trap limits. If trap limits are adopted in the near future, but do little to solve perceived problems in the fishery, then it is possible that industry, fishery managers and the legislature will focus their attention on additional management options.
The authors acknowledge the 243 crab fishermen who generously shared their opinions and information about their business operations. We thank George Boos, Jack Carlson, Peter Leipzig, Chuck Wise and Richard Young for helping to set up project focus-group meetings and workshops in fishing ports. Thanks also to Janelle Kohl, California Sea Grant Extension Program, for her assistance with editing and layout. This research was supported in part by the National Sea Grant College Program of the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under NOAA Grant #NA06RG0142, project #R/F-187, through the California Sea Grant College Program, and in part by the California State Resources Agency. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of any of those organizations.