ASTORIA, Ore. (AP) - The C-130 Hercules motored north along the Washington state coastline in the wee hours of a frigid New Year's Day. Thousands of feet below, yellow halogen lights marked boats in the Dungeness crab fleet, like hundreds of candles floating in the blackness, readying to drop the crab pots stacked on their sterns.
The U.S. Coast Guard flew the cargo plane from a base in Sacramento, California, to the Astoria Regional Airport Friday to help fisheries enforcement managers make sure crabbers are following the rules. The Coast Guard had helicopters out performing similar patrols.
The plane turned off all but its navigation lights to be stealthier. Petty Officer 3rd Class Shannon Fieste, an aviation maintenance technician on the C-130, fingered the controls of an infrared and night-vision camera attached to the plane. She zoomed in and out from boat to boat, checking for fishermen who might have dropped their crab pots before the 8 a.m. opening of fishing.
"It looks like the gear is all on board," she says, marking another vessel, stacked high with crab pots, as non-suspicious before quickly moving onto the next.
Crabbing is state-regulated, with the Coast Guard enforcing safety on the water. Next to Fieste sat Oregon State Trooper Trygve Klepp, a rider along with Todd Dielman, a wildlife officer with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. As Fieste picked her way from boat to boat, Klepp and Dielman took turns sitting beside her as the Hercules made its way to Hoquiam, Washington, before turning back, crossing the mouth of the Columbia River and traveling as far south as Tillamook County.
Klepp said there were rumors of crabbers dropping gear as early as midnight Friday. If someone has buoys out before 8 a.m., he said, he can contact lieutenants on the ground and even confiscate people's gear with the state police's boat, the Guardian.
"We're always looking for a fair start, making sure everybody's following the rules," Dielman said.
The Dungeness crab fishery is one of the most valuable in the region, with more than $50 million made off the Oregon Coast in 2014, and more than $60 million off of Washington. An average of 10 million pounds of Dungeness crab is caught off of Oregon each year, with about 350 Oregon-based vessels partaking in the fishery, according to the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
An estimated 225 vessels will crab off of Washington, another 425 off of Oregon and 75 in both states. Crabbing remains open through the summer, but 50 percent of the annual catch could be landed in the first two weeks of the season, with 80 to 90 percent harvested during the first two to three months, based on historical trends.
The fishery, which traditionally starts Dec. 1, had been delayed by a month because of toxic algal blooms off the coast causing dangerous levels of the neurotoxin domoic acid in marine life. Dielman said the crabs look healthy and full. Recent tests have shown domoic acid levels below U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, while crab north of Cascade Head have filled out with at least 23 percent meat content.
Along with boats dropping pots early, Dielman and Klepp are looking for fishermen who carry too many. Boats can take out another boat barging their gear, but only up to 250 extra pots. Dielman said the departments keep a list of known offenders.
"It's definitely greed," Dielman said about fishermen cutting corners. "There's a lot of money. If we catch them one out of every five times, it's worth it for them."
Along with the wildlife officers and Coast Guard crew Friday was a videographer from the Discovery Channel, filming for the inaugural season of "Deadliest Catch: Dungeon Cove," a spinoff of the long-running series that will focus on Newport crabbing families. The series is set to premier in the fall.
The "Deadliest Catch" series started in 2005, following fishermen in and around the Bering Sea. In a bit of irony, Alaska has never had the deadliest fishery during the run of the show.
A report by the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health in 2009 found that East Coast groundfishing was the deadliest, followed by Atlantic scallops.
In third place was Dungeness crabbing off of Oregon and Washington. The fishery had 25 deaths among a workforce of 8,092 between 2000 and 2009, a rate of 310 deaths per 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers. The Bearing Sea crab fleet suffered 12 deaths among a workforce of 4,658 fishermen, or 260 per 100,000 full-time-equivalents.
Discovery Channel's crew didn't have much action to cover, as neither Dielman nor Klepp identified any suspicious boats Friday. The Coast Guard's Station Cape Disappointment pulled in two disabled vessels over the weekend.
Dielman, Klepp and other officers fanned out to various marinas on the north and south sides of the Columbia River over the weekend, along with Coast Guard safety personnel, finishing last-minute inspections. In October, vessel exams became required for commercial vessels operating more than 3 nautical miles offshore.
After a weak season last year and a monthlong delay, Dielman said he expects a high demand and prices for Dungeness crab, which started coming into processors and seafood markets this week.
Information from: The Daily Astorian, http://www.dailyastorian.com
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