STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We are just wrapping up the season when many people on the West Coast crack open a crab. Dungeness crabs show up in markets and restaurants during the holidays. Fresh crabs are only easy to find for a few weeks, and during this time the crabs provide a burst of flavor at the table, as well as a burst of income for fishermen. They also account for a thriving fishery that is suffering from its own success. Here's NPR's Richard Harris.

RICHARD HARRIS: It's 3:40 AM and I am at the harbor in Crescent City, California. Folks here are preparing their crab boats to go out for what promises to be an insanely long day of pulling crabs out of the Pacific Ocean. Already, quite a number of the slips are empty, and the boats are idling and getting ready to head out to sea on what is thankfully a very calm-looking day.

Mr. BRETT FAHNING (Crab Fisherman): Good morning!

HARRIS: Good morning

Unidentified Man: Good morning.

HARRIS: Crab fisherman Brett Fahning has invited me to spend the day with him and his crew on the Rogue, his 58-foot long fishing boat.

Mr. FAHNING: I bought this crab boat in 2004.

HARRIS: Fahning is a baby-faced 35, and sports a goatee. Under the boat's blazing lights he pilots the Rogue out of the harbor at 4 AM sharp and heads out to sea. This port is a mere shadow of what it was decades ago. Two-thirds of California's commercial fishermen have abandoned their business in the last 15 year, but Dungeness crab is one bright success story. The rules for keeping this fishery healthy are simple. Fishermen only catch large male crabs, and only in a defined season.

Mr. FAHNING: It's just like a no-brainer sustainable fishery. It always has been, and it's not like - they had to change anything from how it started.

HARRIS: Natural cycles do make the crab populations boom and bust, but biologists say fishing is no threat to the crabs. That's true, even though there's an absolute frenzy when the season first opens.

Mr. FAHNING: It's kind of a derby fishery. Most of the production - and I don't know the stats offhand, but an educated guess is that 80 percent of the crab are caught in the first two weeks.

HARRIS: There are only so many crabs, and they get scooped up fast during the bonanza days. After that, it's slim pickings, so there's a race to grab them before they're gone. And more fishermen are joining the derby every year, meaning less crab per vessel. Boats that once caught other species are now turning to Dungeness crabs. That includes vessels that used to go out for salmon, until that fishery collapsed a few years ago.

Mr. FAHNING: Since we haven't had that, more guys are kind of focusing on Dungeness crab. And investing in Dungeness crab, meaning they're buying more pots, more gear, upgrading their boats.

HARRIS: It's become an arms race to catch crab, and, as a result, economist Steve Hackett at nearby Humboldt State University says there's a huge over-investment in the crab fishery. There are something like 170,000 crab pots off California, about three times as many as you'd need to catch all the crabs in a season. Those excesses also make crabbing less profitable. And the race for crab is dangerous. It's the deadliest fishery on the West Coast, with fatalities just about every year. Fahning says some fishermen are just too anxious to get in on the early days of the race, weather be damned.

Mr. FAHNING: I mean, I know what kind of boat I have here. It's an old wood boat. I'm obviously not going to go and fish in conditions that I shouldn't be fishing in. And you just have to use your head and be safe. And a lot of times, guys don't do that.

HARRIS: Captains also fall asleep at the end of their long, long days, and run up into the rocks. So safety and money issues have led crab fishermen to establish a task force to find ways to make their business more rational. A rational season would also mean more fresh crab. Right now, with the huge burst at the beginning of the season, most sweet Dungeness gets frozen.

Mr. FAHNING: OK, I better pay attention here.

HARRIS: Brett Fahning slows his boat as he arrives at his first string of crab pots. He has about 450 in the water, and they need to start pulling them well before dawn if they have any hope of harvesting all their crabs today.

(Soundbite of winch)

HARRIS: Standing on deck behind the wheelhouse, Bobby Kissinger uses a winch to pull up a crab pot. It takes just a few seconds to bring the cage up through 120 feet of water. The crew scoops out a couple of writhing crabs, brown, glistening, about two pounds apiece. They toss them into a bin, re-bait the trap, and toss it overboard.

You're going to do that 400 times today?

Mr. BOBBY KISSINGER (Crab Fisherman): 400 plus, yeah. We get in a zone and we stay there for 12 to 18 hours.

HARRIS: As soon as one pot is done, the boat is up to the next one. Kissinger and his deck mate Andy Allen have their timing down to the second. Allen says most important is Bobby's control over the winch, which keeps the 100-pound crab pots from flying out of control.

Mr. KISSINGER: Yes, everything's riding on that hand. If his hand slips, makes the wrong move, then we're dead men.

HARRIS: Pot after pot comes onboard. Five crabs in one, a dozen in another. Nothing but giant starfish in some.

Brett Fahning watches the action from the wheelhouse. He's a transplant from Wisconsin, educated as an oceanographer, but hooked on the business and sport of fishing. As each crab pot comes up, he eyes it eagerly, to gauge his luck.

Mr. FAHNING: Pretty inconsistent, huh? It's all right, though, huh?

HARRIS: So how's this year panning out?

Mr. FAHNING: I think it's going to pan out OK. It's not going to be a disaster.

HARRIS: This is a slow year for crabs, but Fahning thinks he can earn enough, at least, to pay his bills. Fishermen could potentially make life easier for the entire crab industry if they could find ways to slow their expensive and dangerous arms race.

Mr. FAHNING: There's been suggestions of, let's make it a daylight fishery only. No lights are allowed, you can only go fishing during the day. With the idea that's going to slow things down. Or limit the amount of pots is another one. But I don't think it's fair to try and equalize, to socialize the industry.

HARRIS: Sure, he says, the situation now isn't ideal, but he likes the risks and rewards of the crab business.

Mr. FAHNING: I think it's the independence, really. It'd be pretty hard for me to go back and get a real job after this. I think it's really that. I mean, and ocean, you know, there's the romantic part of it, too. But I think it's just mostly the independence. The romanticism kind of wears off a little bit after a while, after you've been doing it for a while.

HARRIS: And it's that independent streak, found in so many fishermen, that will make it tough for the crab industry to agree on any changes. But they'll try.

Finally, around 7:30 in the evening, the Rogue ties up again in Crescent City with 4,000 pounds of crab in its hold. The crew members go their separate ways, but they will be back in about eight hours, and racing out again to their pots. Richard Harris, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Richard continues tomorrow with new California fishing rules that are intended to protect both fish and those who catch them. I'm looking now at photos taken onboard a crab trawler and inside a California crab shack. You can find them in an audio slide show at npr.org.

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