SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


An Educated and Experienced Description of the Life cycle of a Dungeness Crab* or
Why They Should Not Be Fished in the Summer

By Larry Painter


June 12, 2009

When I first came to S. E. Alaska in the late 60's we pot fished Dungeness Crab and Spot Prawns all year 'round. There was no closed season for either like there was for Salmon that I seined only in the summer and fall with openings regulated by Fish and Game. As I gained experience I noticed that Dungeness Crab started showing soft shells around late February. Through the summer they all go through a soft shell stage. Around September to October they are hard shelled and full of meat. At this time they are in prime condition! That's the time to start fishing!

I went before the Board of Fish in the early 80's and asked for a regulated Dungeness Crab fishery with an open season from Oct. 1 - Feb. 28th and a closed season from March 1 - Sept. 30. Petersburg fishermen at that meeting jumped up and said they didn't have a soft shell problem in their area. The Board gave us a winter fishery in Southern S. E. Areas 1 and 2 and gave the Petersburg fishermen a split summer - winter fishery in Northern S. E. I tried fishing crab in Northern S. E. one summer and found that the Petersburg fisherman who swore they had no soft shell problem, were not telling the truth. Half or 50% of the crab are soft shell. My wife chased down leads, made phone calls and wrote letters till she came up with the results of documented tests performed by the State of Washington Fish and Game and Kodiak Fish and Game on the mortality rate of handling soft shell Dungeness Crab. What it all boiled down to was if you handled a soft shell Dungeness Crab 5 times, no matter how carefully, he would die. The State of Washington Department of Fish could open the lucrative Dungeness fishery on their coast December 1 but typically the crab are not filled out enough until mid or late December, sometimes mid January. Why can't our S.E. Crab get that kind of protection? On the whole Pacific Coast of the North American continent including the Bering Sea, Northern S.E. is the only area fishing Dungeness Crab at the wrong time of the year. Granted the weather wouldn't be as nice, but we're supposed to be taking care of the resource not providing for the comfort of the fisherman. The fisherman can and should pick his weather. You take care of the resource, and it'll be around to take care of you into the future. Northern S.E. has a lot of habitat and a lot of crab, and I guess they can afford to kill a bunch. We don't have near the habitat in Areas 1 and 2, and not near the crab. We have deeper fjords and fewer estuaries. I know if the Northern district waited until October to fish it would be not just a biologically healthy decision but an economically sound decision. Every crab would be sellable and at full weight. When crab are soft shell they have very little meat since they starve themselves so their shells are nearly empty. They grow a soft, papery shell underneath their hard outer shell and start pumping their hard shell full of water until finally they hydraulically split the shell across the carapace, back out with their new soft shell and scurry off to hide out. When their new shell is strong enough to support them, they can start foraging for food and start building their weight back up. Their new shell is 1/2" to 1" bigger than the old, so it is also the male's growth time. The males have to be a regulation size of at least 6 1/2" in order to keep. Meanwhile when the female goes through the soft shell molt, the cluster of eggs clinging to her belly hatch and swim off as Dungeness Crab larvae. While she is in her new soft shell the male crab fertilizes her, so she is set carrying the next summers hatch. The summer is the most important time in the life cycle of a Dungeness Crab. They moult, mate, hatch, grow and start next years brood.

S.E. Department of Fish and Game agrees with me. They would prefer a fall and winter fishery. But now Petersburg is trying to regulate Southern S. E. Areas 1 and 2 in the same unhealthy manner used in Northern S.E. The crab in Areas 1 and 2 can't stand that pressure. There's not that much crab down here. They tried a summer fishery here one time since I closed it. I went before the Board of Fish the next year with affidavits from the three local processors who asked that this area not be opened again. They claimed Tongass Narrows was full of dead and dying soft shell crab floating away from the plants. The proposal to open the fishery in Areas 1 and 2 in summer was voted down. It failed and Areas 1 and 2 were protected and safe again! We went back to a winter fishery.

The Board of Fish and Petersburg Fishermen claim our information is out of date. That's like saying the law of gravity is out of date. The Department of Fish and Game has done no recent testing and the Board of Fish has obtained no new information to verify the sustainability of a fishery in Areas 1 and 2. How can the Board ignore Ketchikan Advisory Board's 'NO' vote on a summer fishery here, Fish and Game's preference for a fall-winter fishery, and precedent set by all the crab fisheries up and down the Pacific Coast clear into the Bering Sea that allow no fishing during soft shell season based on scientific proof that if a soft shell crab is handled 5 times, he's dead. How can they ignore all that?

I wasn't at this January's meetings. I was recuperating from a new knee operation. I was told by people who were there that towards the end of the meeting that most of the interested people had headed out. John Jensen, Chairman of the Board called a recess. John is a Dungeness fisherman, so couldn't vote. But he can talk and he has been a big backer of opening Areas 1 and 2 to a summer fishery. After a vote of 3 to 3 to keep Areas 1 and 2 closed, they came back from a lengthy recess, reconsidered the proposal and voted to open Areas 1 and 2 to a summer fishery with a vote of 5 to 1. Sounds unethical to me!

Larry Painter
40 year Ketchikan Resident
Ketchikan, AK

About: "I fished year round from the Columbia River to Kodiak Island for 59 years."

Received June 11, 2008 - Published June 12, 2009


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