SANTA CRUZ — Coast Guard leaders are urging commercial crab boat captains against overloading their boats with crab pots once the season opens.
Lt. Cmdr. Jon Lane, a Coast Guard spokesman in the San Francisco sector, said this month that eager commercial crabbers have overloaded their vessels in the San Francisco Bay Area and made the dangerous business of crab fishing even more unsafe.
"We just want to get the word out about proper loading on vessels," Lane said. "The good news is that injuries and deaths are largely avoidable if fishermen fully understand the dangers of overloading their vessels with traps and catch."
Lane said overloaded boats sit low in the water and are susceptible to flooding or flipping. In rough ocean conditions, boats can lean too far to one side with the extra weight and capsize, sending a boat's crew into the cold water.
"They can only hope that another boat is nearby and saw what happened or that their Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon automatically will alert the Coast Guard that they are in distress," said Lane.
In February 2015, a crew of an overloaded commercial crab boat about 6 miles off San Francisco sent a radio call for help just before its crew went in the water, Lane said. Thankfully, Lane said, no one was injured.
The commercial crab season typically runs from November to June, but it's been delayed in Santa Cruz because of state authorities' concern about a naturally occurring toxin called domoic acid. Warm ocean water facilitated an algal bloom that spread in the food web and made its way to Dungeness crab and other species.
The recreational crab season opened south of Point Reyes on Feb. 11.
Since then at the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor, many recreational crab fishermen have caught their daily limit of 10 crabs. That small limit could be caught with a trap or two with no real danger of overloading a boat with hundreds of pots, said Harbormaster Latisha Marshall.
Marshall said that in recent weeks only smaller boats have gone out because the harbor entrance has been too shallow for larger boats to pass. Rough ocean conditions last week also kept most recreational crabbers at port.
"I haven't seen (crab) pots on a boat for awhile," Marshall said Tuesday.
For Brett Shaw, a 30-year-old commercial fisherman in Santa Cruz, crabbers themselves have an incentive not to overload boats with crab pots.
"We're smart about it. We don't want to die," Shaw said.
He said crews typically load boats based on the weather conditions. A captain might take fewer pots in heavy weather and more pots when it's clear. A 30-foot boat could take on 175 to 500 pots if authorities allow it, Shaw said.
Shaw said many commercial crabbers around Santa Cruz have lost thousands of dollars because of the delay in the commercial crabbing season. Many already have geared up for salmon season, which starts in May.
"There's a lot of people in a lot of hurt right now," said Shaw. "We can only do so much."