SANTA CRUZ — Boaters and crab fisherman had a few salty words for leaders of the Santa Cruz Port Commission at its meeting Tuesday night, blaming them for poor management of the harbor entrance that could leave crab fisherman unable to motor out of the harbor when commercial crab season opens Friday.
Lisa Ekers, the port director, said dredge operators would work day and night starting Wednesday to take advantage of expected dry weather and smaller surf.
"Our job is not to be obstructionist. It's to support your activities," Ekers told a packed room of a few dozen fishermen and other harbor users Tuesday night. "Your passion about not being able to go out when you want to go out — we get that," Ekers said. "We're going to run extended hours (of the dredge) as much as possible."
Port commissioners also said that a new dredge has been purchased and is due in May. Many crabbers who stood outside the meeting grumbled that May would be too late to catch up an a commercial crab season already delayed for months because of domoic acid levels.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has banned commercial crab fishing south of Mendocino County since the fall.
Authorities and boaters fear that shallow water could force boats to run aground or be forced on to rocks at the harbor entrance, which is a dangerous situation that can severely damage boats.
Because of a Coast Guard declaration Friday, boaters now must contact the Santa Cruz harbormaster's office at radio VHF channel 9 for permission and operation directions to leave or enter the harbor. Boaters also can call the Coast Guard Command Center at 415-399-3547 when the harbormaster staff is unavailable.
Commercial fisherman Jason Collins said he was frustrated that more wasn't done to prepare for an El Niño winter predicted to have larger than normal surf, rainstorms and tons of sand drifting east from the San Lorenzo River near the harbor.
"I just don't understand how it got to this point in an El Niño year," Collins said.
Port commissioners said that dredge workers started pumping sand in November but were hampered in part by rain that started in December. The harbor entrance became so shallow that even the dredge couldn't pump properly, commissioners said. Equipment was used to pump sand from other angles. Heavy surf in recent months also made it difficult to for the dredge crew to work, Ekers said.
Harbor leaders now produce daily depth soundings of the harbor entrance and post them at SantaCruzHarbor.org under Harbor Operations. The entrance was 3 to 17 feet deep at a 0.0 tide last week. By 10 a.m. Tuesday, there was a hole 23 feet deep.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said commercial crabbers can set traps south of Mendocino County starting at 6:01 a.m. Friday. Crabbers can bring back crabs at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The Coast Guard also warned fishermen about the dangers of overloaded boats.
Hans Haveman, co-owner of H&H Fresh Fish in Santa Cruz, said he wanted to get the word out about Dungeness crab season's late start. Crab season typically starts in the fall and ends June 30. It could be extended this year, Fish and Wildlife leaders said.
"Crab season is finally opening," Haveman said. "We need all the help we can get right now to get it out to the public."