Crab protest message caught by state fisheries officials

Dec. 10, 2003

Cheering on a convoy of recreational crab fishermen in their convoy through downtown Port Townsend on Dec. 6 is Don Brickey of Port Hadlock. Group members later made their case to state fisheries officials who were meeting at Fort Worden State Park. They're calling for a larger share of the total crab catch for sports fishing. Photo by Scott Wilson

By Scott Wilson
Leader Staff Writer
Port Townsend Leader

Port Townsend, WA - In the morning cold, sports crabbers waved signs and cheered as a convoy of some 26 rigs pulling boats on trailers honked their way past the downtown Port Townsend waterfront.

In the afternoon heat of a crowded hearing room at Fort Worden State Park, crabbers lowered their voices and made their case formally to the state policy makers who might be able to help them.

The day-long "Crab Convoy" staged Saturday, Dec. 6 through downtown and through Fort Worden was designed to draw attention to what sports fishermen say is too meager a share of the state's rich crab fishery. According to state officials, the protest succeeded in focusing attention on the issue and might even produce some changes in 2004.

"These guys are exercising their First Amendment rights, and I love it," mused Russ Cahill, one of the members of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission who watched a convoy of about 50 vehicles honk its way past the USO Building at Fort Worden at about 11:30 a.m. "They're making a point." Cahill said the commission would revisit the issue at its next meeting in Olympia in February. "We could make an adjustment," he said.

Cahill said he personally understands the issue because he is a recreational crab fisherman near his home in south Puget Sound.

Doug Williams, the WDFW public affairs officer, said Monday that the protesters succeeded, in general terms, in getting the commission to focus on their concerns.

Making a point

The protest, organized by Gary Hulsey, president of the East Jefferson County chapter of Puget Sound Anglers (PSA), hoped to focus attention on how the total crab catch in Washington is allocated between recreational or sports crabbers, and commercial crabbers. For the half of the total crab catch allowed non-tribal fishermen, Hulsey said, about one-third goes to sports crabbers and two-thirds to commercial crabbers.

About 26 vehicles pulling trailered boats honked their way through downtown Port Townsend at 9 a.m., while out in the water at the Port Townsend Salmon Club ramp Troy McKelvey dumped in and pulled out a symbolic crab pot, wired shut per state rules. A state enforcement boat hovered offshore. A group of a dozen sign-waving protesters at the beach were joined for 20 minutes by WDFW Assistant Director Larry Peck and a top Fisheries enforcement officer, Bruce Bjork. The pair listened to concerns but retreated to a state car when Peck, in shirt and tie, began shivering in the wintry morning wind.

At about 11:30 a.m. a larger motorcade made its way through Fort Worden State Park. Unfortunately, the commission had gotten its morning work done early and had already left the building to go to lunch when the convoy came through. Several WDFW staffers were on hand to watch, however, including Peck and WDFW Director Jeff Koenigs, who were sitting in a parked car.

When some protesters pulled into the USO Building parking lot, Commissioner Cahill, the only one still at the meeting site, came out to talk.

150,000 crabbers

Sports crabbers were upset that the crab season in local waters was closed in mid-October, and argued that the growing ranks of sports crabbers should prompt a change that allows them a larger share of the catch. Many of the protesters, who came from as far away as Marysville, Oak Harbor and Anacortes, called for recreational fishermen to get 50 percent of the non-tribal catch.

In his afternoon testimony before the commission, Hulsey said he represented 150 PSA members from East Jefferson County. "It is inconceivable how anyone could consider the recreational crab management fair, when in the past several years we have seen sport seasons decline to the point where some seasons are measured in weeks, and crab populations are at an all-time high," he said. Hulsey said there are fewer than 250 commercial crab licenses issued in Puget Sound but more than 150,000 recreational crabbers. The recreational crabbers spend more than $50 million to pursue their avocation, he said, a far greater impact than commercial crabbing, he said.

"In a nutshell, we are demanding a fair count and fair share for the non-native sports crabbers," he said.

Other sports fishermen also spoke. Their views were not countered at the afternoon session by anyone from the commercial crabbing industry, but spokesmen for commercial crabbers had made their case earlier in the day. They reminded the commission that commercial crabbers ensure a plentiful supply of fresh crab for state residents who do not personally go fishing.

Survey method

Another issue discussed by Hulsey and others is the new survey method used by state Fisheries biologists to determine how much crab has been taken from the fisheries management districts. Both sides seem to agree the survey method is flawed and must be fixed.

"The issue is how to count," said Cahill, a previous commission chairman. "The system is not perfect."

While the question of how much total crab can be taken in a given year without hurting the resource is a biological question, the question of how much of that catch should go to commercial versus recreational fishermen appears to be a political question.

"There is nothing written anywhere that says recreational fishermen get x percentage and commercial crabbers get y percentage," said WDFW spokesperson Williams. The allocation question for 2004, "I imagine will get tweaked through a lot of discussion with various user groups, a lot of commission input" and a lot of staff discussion at WDFW, he said.

After the event, Hulsey said he was satisfied that more than 100 people had turned out to make the case and that they had been heard by state officials.

"Our voices were heard and our views are being considered," he said. He also thanked local officials for working with PSA to allow the protest to go ahead without it interfering with other community events. He singled out City Manager David Timmons, Port Townsend Police Chief Kristen Anderson and Sgt. Ed Green, Fort Worden Park Manager Kate Burke and staff, and Port Townsend Main Street Program's Mari Mullen.


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