Just a week after the commercial crab season was delayed until Dec. 31, Brookings-Harbor fishermen are facing a huge setback: they will no longer be able to fish in one of their most lucrative spots starting today (Dec. 19) because of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) ban designed to help restore depleted fish populations.
Pyramid Point State Marine Conservation Area, also known by fishermen as "the mud hole," is about three nautical miles south of the border.
"What it's going to mean, is that we're going to be tripping over ourselves in other areas," said Bernie Lindley, president of the Brookings Fishermen's Marketing Association.
"The congestion's going to be a problem. It means that crab that we would normally be allowed to catch, they might possibly go left in the ocean. I don't know, maybe they'll crawl out of that area and into somebody's trap but we don't know.
He added, "We're not upset about the MPA. We're upset that we don't get to commercially fish for Dungeness crab in that area, when all the other MPAs of that type do allow for Dungeness crab fishing. We just want to be able to crab in that spot just like the other areas allow."
The MPA, which was adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission, is one of 19 MPAs now in effect throughout the state. They cover 137 square miles of the 1,027 miles in the North Coast region andndash; roughly 13 percent.
According to the California Department of Fish and Game website, "taking of all marine resources is prohibited except: the recreational take of surf smelt by dip net or Hawaiian type throw net."
Smith River Rancheria members are exempt from the ban as well.
"Studies show that these areas allow fish to grow larger, stay healthier and reach greater abundance and diversity," reads the website of Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit environmental group that was a strong proponent of California's MPAs. "Fish thrive in these protected areas, then move out into other parts of the ocean and replenish weaker populations."
All of the MPAs, which were voted on in June, complete a statewide network of coastal MPAs from Mexico to Oregon set forth by the Marine Life Protection Act passed by the California state legislature in 1999.
"We are poised to return California's marine resources to the sustainable abundance we all once enjoyed," said Richard Rogers, a member of the California Fish and Game Commission, after the June vote.
But according to local fishermen, Dungeness crab do not need to be restored.
"There is no depleted Dungeness crab resource," Lindley said. "The state of California had the largest harvest on record last year. It was something like 31.5 million pounds. That was their largest season they ever had. If they just got done having their largest season, how in the world could they say they have depleted stocks? I don't understand why they're trying to protect the Dungeness crab. It doesn't make sense."
Regardless of what the ban is designed to do, it will affect the livelihood of many in Brookings-Harbor.
"There are other areas to get crab," Lindley said. "It's not going to make anybody go bankrupt or anything. That's the upside, I guess. But we're talking areas that we fished for decades, and I've personally fished in there since 1990. Over the course of my career, I've fished in there a lot. It's more than just an inconvenience."
Lindley estimates that somewhere between 25 and 30 Brookings-Harbor fishermen fish in Pyramid Point, and that about 3,000 crab traps fit in the zone.
Ralph Dairy and Willy Goergen are a couple of fishermen who crabbed in Pyramid Point on a regular basis.
"I would say that, oh about 60 to 70 percent of my annual income came from that area," Goergen said. "It will mean that the area that I traditionally fished most of my life, like over the last 20 years that I've been crabbing, I'm forced out of.
"I'll have to fish elsewhere, which affects me and everybody around me because I'll be fishing in other areas where other people fish.
"It's a big ocean. I'm familiar with other areas, but it's going to take more fuel and more expense, and like I said, I'll be taking crab from other people now that maybe I didn't have to fish by before. It's just forcing the gear to be in a smaller area.
"It's not just us though. I don't know how much money this takes from the community. I would have to say it's in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year that doesn't go into the community because of it."
Dairy used to keep 600 pots in that area, he said, and only 60 to 70 in Oregon andndash; now that's all going to change.
"That's 30 percent of our grounds," he said. "It's all mud there. It's premium crab grounds," Dairy said.
"The California border is traditional crabbing grounds for Brookings-Harbor fishermen. That is traditional fishing grounds since this port came into existence."
Dairy says the economic impact to the local community is substantial: "Here's what it's worth to our community: for every dollar you bring across the bar, it turns into $7 in our community. If I bring in $100,000 worth of crab, that's $700,000 to our local community. Now I'm just one boat."
But Lindley said it is difficult to predict.
"It's hard to guess a revenue loss because what if they migrate out of the area?" Lindley said. "We don't know if they will eventually walk out of that area into a crab pot and we'll still end up harvesting, or if they're homebodies and will stay in that zone. There's no way to know. The big issue is, can we entice those crab to come out of that area? We would do that by putting a bunch of baited traps on the perimeter of the MPA. But who knows?"
Port of Brookings Harbor Manager Ted Fitzgerald said the MPA could have a negative effect on the port.
"It's probably one of the most accessible areas to this port," Fitzgerald said. "Those people are going to have to relocate their pots and crowd into areas fished by others. What's that going to do short term? Everybody will have to be competing for a smaller piece of the pie, and long term, I think that it could result in crabbers relocating. It's got a big effect on this port. It's big and it's bad. The port received no notice.
"It's a real problem, and I'm not exactly sure what to do about it. If the crab population was in jeopardy, we would be looking at a different scenario. But since the crab aren't in jeopardy, this looks like an attack on Oregon fishermen who have bought and paid for California crab permits since that's who it's going to primarily affect."
Lack of communication
Local fishermen were also upset that, as Oregon residents, they weren't included in the process, even though many have California fishing licenses.
"It's frustrating," Lindley said. "We weren't included in the process of determining where and what kind of fishing would be allowed in these MPAs. We feel like the fishermen out of Brookings-Harbor are stakeholders in that area."
They also weren't notified.
"Supposedly they had public meetings, but I knew nothing of the public meetings," Dairy said. "The California Fish and Game has a list of permit holders, and therefore, they had a list to contact people, and they never contacted people."
Goergen voiced a similar sentiment.
"The sad part about this whole thing is, that I don't know that it was done secretly, but this is closed day after tomorrow, (and) we have not been notified," he said. "We emailed a guy running the state side of the Marine Protection Act (who) said it was unanimous among stakeholders. I don't know who the other stakeholders are, but I think me and a few fishermen are more stakeholders than anybody, and I was never asked.
"They're not really telling us anything. The only way we know we're not in the area is a smart phone app. The line isn't very clear. andhellip; There's no clear boundary."
Fisherman only found out about the MPA through word of mouth.
For now, they are just trying to figure out what to do.
"Our spot is of vital importance to us," Lindley said.
andndash; The Del Norte
contributed to this story.