ILWACO — Continuing delays caused by the marine toxin domoic acid have brought critical Southwest Washington commercial fishing ports to a standstill since December.

Now, participants in the Washington commercial Dungeness crab fishing fleet are hopeful they may be able head out for the first trip of the season in February, more than two months after the traditional Dec. 1 start.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife currently expects an opening as early as Feb. 15. The exact date is yet to be determined, pending domoic acid tests dropping to acceptable levels. Meanwhile, the delays are forcing fishermen to go weeks without income while bills continue to pile up, putting many in a financial pinch.

Should I stay or should I go?

That’s the question some fishermen are asking as the bills mount and they stay in port. The uncertainty about the season has strained finances and relationships for commercial fisherman Rob Johnson.

In December, Johnson, 44, made the trip from Alaska eager to experience his first Washington Dungeness crab season. But for Johnson, who primarily fished for cod and halibut in Alaska over the past 25 tears, the experience has so far left a bitter taste.

“I’ve been here for almost two months. It’s not good financially. It’s a lot of added stress. I’m at a point where I have to make a decision. Do I still stick around and keep losing money or am I going to go home? It’s going to make me go through a divorce.”

After nearly two months of waiting, Johnson feels he can only stay two more weeks.

“Another few weeks and that’s it. If it’s longer than two weeks, I’m out.”

Bills pile up

Commercial fishermen Ross Kary, 29, has felt the financial pressure building over the past several weeks as the bills come and the crabbing remains closed.

“We all have big bills — moorage, insurance — it all adds up. I’m probably out of pocket $20,000. At some point, you have to start having some return,” Kary said.

The delays have a ripple effect on the fleet, often forcing crews to go farther and take more risks to make up for time and money lost.

“When it’s delayed for so long it forces more to go out in the ocean. They can’t put their pots in the river and still make any money,” Kary said.

Dungeness crab fishing is among the most profitable fisheries but comes with a high degree of risk.

“You never know what kind of volume is going to be out there when you do go. You just hope that you scratch enough to make some sort of the season,” Kary said.

No go for greenhorn

The covid-19 pandemic unfolding over the past several months has forced many to find new careers, including former chefs turned commercial fishermen.

“It’s a hard year to switch gears and to be a greenhorn,” said Michael Campiche, 45, among newest members aboard the F/V Carmillo. Like others in the fleet, Campiche has yet to experience his first day at sea as a Dungeness crab fishermen this season. His change in careers was in part precipitated by the pandemic. “None of the restaurants were open anywhere,” said Campiche, a former executive chef at the Shelburne Hotel in Seaview.

“It’s pretty difficult to get a position in any restaurant right now,” he noted.

Rolling with the punches

After the crabbing delay turned from days into weeks into months, many have never seen a season so shortened, even those who’ve spend decades in the industry.

“This is my 25th year of Dungie fishing and it just gets worse and worse. It’s never been delayed this long,” said commercial fishermen Mike Harman.

“We’ve been delayed before but not this long,” he said. Mid-January was the previous record for season delay.

As a fishermen, Harman, 44, has learned to roll with regulatory punches that can come unexpectedly and drag longer than usual.

“We’ll take the punches as they come. We’ll get to go eventually,” he said. “They can’t hold us forever. We may not make as much money but we’ll make some. We’re at where we’re at and this is just the way the world is. You’ve got to take what you can get and be happy for that.”

Under pressure

Jerry Matzen III, 34, now in his 10th year of crabbing said the delays could cause more fishing pressure for the local fishing fleet once the season starts.

“I feel there will be a lot of outside pressure this year,” he said. “A lot of other guys have already had their season since they already opened. They’re going to end up coming up this way and it will be more pressure on us and our resource.”

The Tri-State crab management committee, consisting of the fisheries departments of Washington, Oregon and California, generally strive to ensure a “fair start” for everyone, but this season has been so weird, no one quite knows what to expect. The abundant crabbing grounds from Klipsan Beach to the Columbia River attract a lot of harvest pressure at the best of times.

Crucial fishery

There are 228 Washington coastal commercial Dungeness crab license holders with approximately 200 fishers, according to WDFW. Washington commercial Dungeness crab fishermen caught around 15.7 million pounds during the 2019-2020 season, the best season total since 2016-2017 (16.4 million) and exceeding seven out of the past eight years, according to figures from Pacific Fisheries Information Network (PACFIN).

Washington Columbia River Ports (CLW) had 2.4 million pounds with an average price of $3.51, accounting for 15% of the overall catch.

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